China’s state-run media had a field day this fall with Occupy Wall Street, spinning an almost daily morality play about capitalism gone amok and a US government unable or unwilling to aid the victims of a rapacious elite.
Occupy Wukan is another matter entirely. The state press has been all but mute on why 13,000 Chinese citizens, furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite, sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake Wukan. However, the village takeover can be ignored only at Beijing’s peril: There are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China, all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the same sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.
“What happened in Wukan is nothing new. It’s all across the country,” said Liu Yawei (劉亞偉), an expert on local administration who is the director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
A second analyst, Li Fan (李凡), estimated in an interview that 50 percent to 60 percent of Chinese villages suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that apparently beset Wukan, albeit not so severe. Li leads the World and China Institute, a private nonprofit research center based in Beijing that has extensively studied local election and governance issues.
On paper, the Wukan protests never should have happened: China’s village committees should be the most responsive bodies in the nation because they are elected by the villagers themselves. Moreover, the government has built safeguards into the village administration process to ensure that money is properly spent.
Village self-administration, as the central government calls it, is seen by many foreigners as China’s democratic laboratory — and while elections can be rigged and otherwise swayed, many political scientists say they are, on balance, a good development.
However, actually running the villages is another matter. Village committees must provide many of the services offered by governments, such as sanitation and social welfare, but they cannot tax their residents or collect many fees. Any efforts to raise additional money, for things like economic development, usually need approval from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled township or county seats above them.
In practice, the combination of the villages’ need for cash and their dependence on higher-ups has bred back-scratching and corruption between village officials and their overseers. China’s boom in land prices has only broadened the opportunity for siphoning off money from village accounts.
And the checks and balances — a village legislature to sign off on major decisions, a citizens’ accounting committee to keep watch over the village books — have turned out, in practice, to be easily manipulated by those who really hold the power.
LAND IS GOLD
“Land sales are where the big money is,” Edward Friedman, a political science professor and a China scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a telephone interview. “Every level can see how much better the level above it is doing. And each one wants to live at least that well. The system has within it a dynamic which makes people feel it’s only fair that they get their share of the wealth.”
The opportunities to get that share are vast, apparently. In 2003, a candidate for village committee chairman in Laojiaotou village, Shanxi Province, spent 2 million yuan — then about US$245,000 — to campaign for an office that paid 347 yuan a month, the Chinese journal Legal News reported at the time.