Wukan hints at urgency of better governance

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-12-21 20:18:00

Chan Kin-man (陈建民)

Editor's Note:
The village of Wukan in Guangdong Province is under the spotlight. Over the past months, villagers launched demonstrations against land exploitation and election-fixing by village heads. However, following village representative Xue Jinbo's death last week during police custody, peaceful protest turned into social unrest. The village is now cordoned off by police, as the authorities attempt to negotiate a deal. How will the unrest evolve? What will the government do to ease the tension? Global Times (GT) reporter Gao Lei invited Chan Kin-man (Chan), director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to talk about these issues.

GT: What should be the first priority for local government in solving the ongoing unrest in Wukan?

Chan: The unrest in Wukan has become more complicated with the death of Xue Jinbo. The priority now is to investigate Xue's death and present the truth to the public. Although land losses have been the most important issue since the start of the villagers' protest, villagers' dissatisfaction only turned into anger when their representative died in custody. Unless the mystery around the death is cleared up, the villages may not stop their action.

GT: Self-organized villagers' groups can help solve the land loss issue. But organizations formed by villagers of Wukan to defend their rights have been deemed illegal as their establishments are not following procedures instructed by the law. How to solve this dilemma?

Chan: It is very difficult for villagers to form their own organizations under current regulations. The Constitution of the People's Republic of China permits freedom of association. However in practice, many affiliated limitations are set up so that it is barely possible for ordinary people to form "legal" organizations.

For instance, the regulations state that NGOs are required to be affiliated with a registered entity or a government department who can be held accountable for their activities before they can be deemed legal, but these partners are hard to find, as they are cautious about possible risks.

This is also what happened to Wukan. The local authorities actually poured fuel onto the fire when it described the villagers' organizations as "illegal entities." The villagers were in a disadvantaged position when they were tricked by the head of the village and developers.

They formed their own organizations to defend their rights. The government should have shown more support rather than simply shutting these organizations down.

In other East Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and even in regions of China like Hong Kong and Taiwan, there are many independent associations organized by local villagers to protect their interests, such as farmers' association. China should consider adopting some of their experiences while removing red-tape and obstacles.

GT: How will the Wukan unrest develop?

Chan: If the situation continues to worsen and its influence starts to spread to other villages, higher level authorities may intervene. At present, although netizens around the nation are monitoring the unrest, it appears to be an isolated case. But time is short for the provincial authorities, as the foreign press is already covering the incident. I think the following couple of days will decide what happens.

If the government fails to ease the mounting pressure, villagers will march to the government headquarters and launch an even larger protest. This is really a test for Wang Yang, secretary of Guangdong Provincial Committee of the CPC, who has been quite open in dealing with similar incidents occurred over these years.

Since Wang took office as head of the province, Guangdong has been exploring new methods, or the Guangdong model, in fixing social conflicts and public discontent.

Thus, there are expectations from observers that Wang will be able to satisfy the villagers peacefully and set up a good role model for other provinces to follow. The pressure the public is putting on him will also ensure he will not opt for a more harsh approach.

China has accumulated valuable experience in developing its economy, but its experience of social management is relatively small. The central authorities have signaled their willingness to pour more energy into social management and Wukan is a chance for innovation.

The central authorities have signaled their willingness to pour more energy into social management and Wukan is a chance for innovation.
Chan Kin-man

GT: The ongoing unrest was initially triggered by land losses. What should the government do to prevent similar incident from happening in the future?

Chan: The government needs to reform the laws so that villages can become better informed and protected in dealing with government-linked business interests. At present, villages are vulnerable to exploitation.

They are unaware of their rights or of the value of their land but are often forced or misled into signing land sale agreements. The situation can get worse if villagers' elected representatives, such as village chiefs, sell them out for personal gain.

Posted in: Dialogue

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