The village of Wukan waits surrounded by what will be one of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) most far-reaching, yet contested legacies: A vast buildup of the domestic security apparatus that critics say feeds the discontent it was designed to defuse.
Riot police penning in the people of Wukan, Guangdong Province, who have protested for a week about farmland seized for development and the suspicious death of a village organizer, form one part of Hu’s drive for “stability preservation” that reaches from dissidents detained in China’s capital to restive corners of the countryside.
Since February, Hu has redoubled the urgency of his campaign to strengthen “social management” and pre-empt unrest before he retires from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership late next year and from the state presidency shortly after that.
“When we look back, the defining feature of Hu Jintao’s era will be stability preservation. That will be the term through which his era is remembered. It will be his legacy,” said Cui Weiping (崔衛平), a 55-year-old dissident-writer in Beijing, who lives monitored by a team of security police — another part of the security drive.
“Stability preservation is the party’s defensive response to a society that is growing more fluid and assertive, but the system can’t keep up with social change and public demands,” Cui said.
“That’s why they’re so anxious despite all the security spending,” she said, adding that she has become a prisoner to this push.
“Somebody controls my cellphone, my computer and Internet, when I can step outside and when I must stay in,” Cui said.
In many ways, Wukan distills official fears. The village lies on a relatively prosperous and connected edge of the urbanizing coast, not a desperate corner of the interior.
Hu and other leaders have often warned officials to prepare for greater risks to party control as China’s citizens become more mobile, more connected on the Internet, more wealthy and more vocal against inequality and corruption.
While Chinese policymakers in many areas tread water before the leadership succession, security officials led by CCP Central Political and Legislative Committee Secretary Zhou Yongkang (周永康) have issued directives and held meetings every week aimed at bolstering “social management,” the party’s phrase for defusing sources of discontent and enhancing controls.
Hu has also overseen a jump in spending on policing and law-and-order agencies, and expanded the powers of the domestic security hierarchy that yokes local officials’ prospects for promotion to their success in pre-empting potential unrest.
“Strengthening and renovating social management is an urgent task to preserve social harmony and stability,” Zhou told officials in September, according to Xinhua news agency.
He called the campaign — which has been given added urgency by upheavals rippling from the Arab world — a strategic task to “consolidate the ruling status of the party” and protect order.
“With the 18th Party Congress coming up and the handover of power so sensitive, they don’t want any destabilizing incidents,” said Xie Yue (謝岳), a professor of political science at Tongji University in Shanghai, who has studied “stability preservation” (weiwen) policies.
The congress convenes late next year.
“Social management entails taking the offensive to attack sources of unrest before they even break out,” Xie said. “To some extent, it’s a substitute for political reform.”