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The People’s Republic of Wukan

Last Wednesday, residents of Wukan, a village in southern Guangdong Province, came to an agreement with senior government officials to end a rebellion that had captured the imagination of Chinese citizens. For more than a week, the villagers had governed themselves—after ejecting Communist Party cadres following a long-simmering land dispute. During that time, security forces had set up a blockade ringing the community of about 13,000 residents, essentially laying siege to the restive village. 

Pursuant to the deal negotiated with an emissary of the Guangdong Party chief, authorities agreed to free three villagers, release the body of a Wukan leader who had died in custody, and authorize a temporary committee to investigate the apparently corrupt land dealings that had triggered the extraordinary unrest.  Following the negotiations, villagers tore down banners and called off a march to a nearby city center. The “open revolt,” as the Wall Street Journal termed it, was over.

“What happened in Wukan is nothing new,” said Liu Yawei to the New York Times. “It’s all across the country.” In many ways, Liu, director of the China program at the Carter Center, is correct. There are now hundreds of thousands of protests each year in the People’s Republic. 

Yet the events in Wukan village break new ground. The residents there exhibited a high degree of organization and governed themselves for a little over a week. During that period, there were sympathy protests in Guangzhou, Guangdong’s capital, and other aggrieved citizens came to Wukan to seek advice in their own disputes with rapacious Party cadres. People in neighboring villages smuggled food to Wukan through the government’s blockade.

Almost no China analyst thinks Guangdong officials will keep their end of the deal with Wukan. It is, for example, inconceivable that the provincial government will energetically investigate the corrupt actions of local cadres, and it’s a safe bet the community’s new leaders will be detained once reporters leave. The dominant narrative is that the simple villagers, mistakenly placing their trust in senior leaders, were duped.

And perhaps they were. But they can always take to the streets again if Guangdong officials renege on their deal, and the whole process will start over. Only next time, Wukan’s villagers will be radicalized.

The residents of Wukan are not alone. In another Guangdong community, nearby Haimen, thousands of residents last week braved tear gas and clashed with police for several days to demand the removal of a cancer-producing, coal-fired generating station.  Residents maintain two students were killed during the upheaval—police deny the deaths—but they have continued demonstrating, with about 600 of them blockading a national highway. 

The Chinese people, in Wukan, Haimen, and a thousand other locations, are pushing the Communist Party out of their way. This spring, the unrest could be historic.

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