Wukan exposes the facade of Guangdong openness
A village in Lufeng, Guangdong, has become yet another powder keg of underclass fury in China. The simmering unhappiness over local officials' corruption and autocratic behaviour finally erupted into major unrest this month.
Corruption in local government is rife, and the conflict in Wukan is no different from the thousands of others across the country. But Wukan caught attention because Wang Yang , Guangdong's party chief, projects a more open governing style. Only last month, the international media reported on how a protest in Wukan was allowed to proceed peacefully. Under Wang, registration rules for non-governmental organisations are eased, and the media urged to play a fuller watchdog role.
Observers say Wang's economically liberal 'Guangdong model' is set up to be the opposite of Bo Xilai's 'Chongqing model', which favours state-owned enterprises and traditional socialist values. The context, of course, is a power struggle between the two ahead of the party leadership shuffle next year.
But the violent confrontation in Wukan has made a mockery of this kind of analysis. The siege by armed police and the brutal treatment of protest leaders in Guangdong may be on a par with Chongqing's crackdown on organised crime. Are Wang and Bo that different?
The protests escalated this month after a villager, Xue Jinbo, died in detention. He was arrested along with four other villagers. Three days later, his family was informed of his death and told to collect his body. Officials said he died of a cardiac arrest. His family said he was beaten to death; they found injuries on his chest and back. His death spurred outrage and galvanised the villagers to fight on.
Is this an isolated incident? People probably don't want to believe senior officials ordered the torture; more likely low-level officials were to blame. Without Xue's death, would the 'more liberal' Guangdong authorities continue being so liberal?
In fact, the stand-off between the people and officials deteriorated after a rally on September 21 - which saw 4,000 villagers take to the streets over a grievance close to their heart - was described by the authorities as a rally by 400 people who had been goaded and made use of by 'hostile forces' to create trouble. The ad hoc committees that the villagers set up to deal with the issue were declared illegal.
This only told the villagers the local government had no intention of hearing their complaint or resolving the problem, and they felt ignored and insulted. The charge of 'collusion with hostile forces' also told them there would be harsher reprisals to come.
Where in all this is the touted tolerance and open-mindedness of government? Is the stock response of government to protest action the result of laziness? Of course not. If officials do not blame 'foreign hostile forces', or describe villagers as fools being manipulated, they would have to explain how a village party secretary that is deeply unpopular with the people has managed to stay in power for 40 years - and in a village that 'enjoys' so-called self-rule by the people. The protesters' slogans of 'Down with dictatorship' and 'Against corruption' refer to village politics, but it's easy to apply them higher up the governing structure.
When interviewed by a Financial Times reporter last month, I said that even though the September rally was allowed, Wang's promise of a more liberal approach would only go so far because the villagers would not be content with a showcase march - they want real solutions to their problem.
Some people have said the heavy hand in dealing with Wukan protesters was on Beijing's orders. Even if that were true, it is clear Guangdong is a cog in the machine.
The Chinese system is stuck in a groove, unable to fix its own problems. In this system, a normal expression of our rights becomes the work of foreign hostile forces, and groups that fall outside government control become illegal organisations. If Guangdong's more enlightened governance is not used to dismantle the system, but to strengthen it, the outcome would be the opposite of our hopes.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese