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Wukans wake-up call breaks Chinas sleep

Author: Binod Singh
Publication: The Times of India
Date: January 3, 2012

Introduction: With thousands of villages rebelling against authority, the people-regime equation changed drastically in 2011

It was a landmark year for China. It marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of Chinas Communist Party. It also marked the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Manchu Empire by the Wu Chang uprisings. Since 1911, China has seen many revolutions. The last two Maos Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen uprising occurred in the 1960s and late 1980s respectively. Since then, China has enjoyed political stability and an economic boom unprecedented in its history.

From the outside, China still looks stable. This year, even as the Jasmine Revolution swept through the Middle East and people marched against capitalism in the West, China remained quiet. Its unique model of capitalism without democracy remained intact. Inside China, however, the picture is quite different. There were enough "uprisings", particularly in the countryside, to show that the nation is simmering with anger.

In September, the small fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong rose in protest against land grabbing by the government. After their representative, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody, the protest turned into a revolt and the police and local communist bosses were expelled from the village. But Wukan was not an isolated case. Thousands of villages rebelled against seizure of their land by the government for real-estate developers, and against rising pollution and corruption in government. None of these protests were allowed to spread beyond a limit, but Wukan was a wake-up call to the Chinese government. The incident made it realize that people are no longer willing to take things lying down.

In fact, 2011 was a tumultuous year for China: a series of self-immolations by Tibetan monks in Sichuan made the government nervous; millions of Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) users exposed corruption scams involving Communist Party officials; and a nascent civil society demanded political reform after prominent artist Ai Weiwei was arrested for pro-democracy utterances.

The party knows its vulnerable, but decided to hit back. It reaffirmed its commitment to be the only legitimate representative of Chinese people to hold power, rejecting demands for western-style liberal democracy based on elections.

The paradox is that while Chinese society longs for a clean and accountable government based on democratic values, it is also scared of disturbing the current stability, tom-tommed as a major factor behind Chinas growth and prosperity.

But the ordinary Chinese villagers, migrant workers and the urban poor are not buying this story anymore. They seem to have lost some of their respect and fear for officials and police, and are no longer scared of speaking out. And the government is learning to listen. In October this year, when thousands in Dalian took to the streets demanding closure of a chemical plant which was poisoning their water, the government quickly agreed to shut it down. In China, the people government power equation changed this year.

China may have dazzled the world with its double-digit growth and Shanghais sparkling waterfront, but the ordinary Chinese is not really impressed. They see themselves as victims of this growth model which has robbed them of their land, poisoned their air and water and led to a sharp increase in cancer cases. In recent years, there have been thousands of protests against polluting plants and corrupt officials who protect them. In 2011,these protests reached a new high.

Despite its impressive growth, China has serious social problems. Its social security system is a mess and healthcare is unaffordable to a majority of its citizens. Social unrest in China is mainly rooted in the uneven distribution of wealth among its different regions. Chinese villages are getting deserted as young people move to cities. At the same time, many party officials are alleged to have sent their families abroad and transferred their ill-gotten wealth there. While the rich are fast getting richer, the life of the common man is getting harder due to rising food prices and lack of corresponding income hikes.

Has the government learnt any lessons from the uprisings of 2011 Hard to say, but its clear the party doesnt want to escalate tensions by using too much force, particularly in the mainland. After the Wukan rebellion, the governor of Guangdong said he understands peoples anger against seizure of their land. But the party doesnt seem to be in a mood to share power with anyone else.2011 showed that Chinese stability may be a myth. The year also showed how badly Chinas communist bosses are failing in reading the mood of their people.
 
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