Adam Ford reports on the Wukan rebellion and asks what it means for the future of social struggles in China
The villagers of Wukan in south-east China appear to have won a victory over the misnamed Communist Party regime, and prevented the sale of some communal land. This triumph is the result of direct action, direct democracy, and the community’s ability to get the word out, in spite of government censorship. These factors will be crucial in 2012, as factory workers come into conflict with multinational corporations in the cities.
The struggle began in September, when Wukan residents became suspicious that the local government was in the process of selling common farming land to Country Garden - a company which builds residences for the rich. The 21st sawhundreds of villagers gathered at nearby Communist Party offices, to nonviolently protest against the sale. But as crowds grew and grew in numbers, so too did their confidence. Protesters began blocking roads and attacking buildings in an industrial park.
Three villagers were arrested at the Communist HQ demonstrations, and the next day hundreds laid siege to the police station, demanding their release. The state responded to this challenge with unrestrained ferocity, with police and mercenaries beating villagers apparently without discrimination – men and women, children and the elderly.
Cops were eventually called back to their posts, and the government struck a conciliatory tone, even asking villagers to elect delegates who could air their grievances. In retrospect, this seems to have been a ploy to uncover the ‘leadership’. One of these – respected village butcher Xue Jinbo – died in police custody, apparently the victim of a state killing. The state news agency claimed that Xue was the victim of a heart attack, but the bruised knees, bloodied nostrils and broken thumbsreported by his son in law indicate this took place under torture.
What happened next stunned Beijing authorities, and sent shockwaves around the world in mid-December. The furious Wukan villagers banded together and drove the police and Communist Party officials out of town. They then set about running things for themselves. Meanwhile, cops maintained a blockade a few miles away. At this point, the central government’s strategy appeared to be one of containment. They shied away from a violent restoration of ‘order’, perhaps wary of inflaming tensions nationwide. But if they could successfully stop the story from getting out to the wider world, Wukan residents would soon be faced with a choice – surrender or starvation.
However, that is not how the story ended. Despite the blocking of Wukan-related internet searches within China itself, some international media were in town to spread the word, and villagers even set up their own press office. People from nearby villages managed to smuggle food in - their solidarity directly fuelling the resistance. There was also some wealth redistribution from the wealthiest to the poorest, ensuring that everyone would survive the blockade.
Frustrated, the Communist leadership eventually cut a deal. Though details are scarce and unreliable, the provincial government has reportedly agreed to buy back land it had seized, and allow the peasants to collectivise it once more. Detained villagers have been released, and an ‘investigation’ into the death of Xue Jinbao has been announced. It appears as if there was some indication that Wukan peasant delegates would be allowed to stand in local elections, because villagers are now complaining that officials have gone back on their word. This week it was also being reported that Chinese citizens who had expressed sympathy with the uprising were being called in “to drink tea” with police.
But central government are unlikely to pick a significant fight in Wukan any time soon. From their perspective, it would be preferable to let things cool down, and allow the story to die a death. However, there are growing indications that the national export-led economy is being dragged down by rising recessionary tides in the western world. Factory bosses have already been compelled to attack jobs, wages and conditions across the country, and a strike movement seems to be gathering pace. During the first recession of this global depression, Chinese leaders threw money at the problem, and seemed to have headed off a broad revolt. But that money has now been spent, and indeed led to more problems, as a property bubble seems fit to burst.
We are in unchartered territory here, so the future develoment of Chinese struggles is difficult to predict. But we can be sure that turmoil in China will have a huge impact around the world, due to the country’s pivotal role in commodity production. It it now possible to envisage a largescale uprising of the Chinese industrial proletariat, which would no doubt find support in peasant villages like Wukan. To paraphrase the supposed Chinese curse, we may live in very interesting times