Wang Zhanyang on Wukan and Village Autonomy

Wang Zhanyang, Director of the Political Science Department at the Central Institute of Socialism, contributed this essay to a forum on the implications of Wukan for the country as a whole. The forum responds to the December 22 People’s Daily editorial, “What Does ‘Wukan‘s Turn’ Mean for Us?” Hu Deping and Wu Si also contributed. See also Willy Lam‘s piece in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. (Translation by Harriet Xu)

The peaceful resolution of the Wukan Incident is gratifying and inspirational. Moreover, it has shown us the new dawn of Chinese constitutional democracy, and in particular the dawn of village autonomy.

1. The systemic origins of the Wukan Incident are national, and its peaceful resolution is of national significance.

The issue of village autonomy lies at the root of the Wukan Incident. The most crucial factor in the situation’s fair solution is that it had the legitimacy of a “Wukan Villagers Interim Representative Council,” which came out of a democratic village election. This bestowed the village government with a high degree of respect and approval. “Interim Representative Council” may replace an officially elected village committee, the village government office may also hold a new election. However, if no mishaps occur, Wukan’s “sovereignty of villagers”  will definitely be established from this point on.

This turn of events in Wukan is still an isolated case. Yet, in regards to deepening reform of village autonomy and the protection of villagers’ democratic rights to self-governance, it has national significance as a model and forerunner.

This is because the Wukan Incident has not only its own specific source, but also a common, national source. Namely, village autonomy has yet to be implemented on a large scale. Many places are without village autonomy or even village governance. Furthermore, most villagers do not exercise sovereignty. Instead, village branch secretaries or village heads and their assistants have unchecked power, colluding with upper and lower echelons, officials and businessmen. They use their power for personal ends and seriously infringe on the personal rights of villagers, and their actions lead to national, large-scale mass incidents. Everyone knows that the Wukan Incident was also a reaction to the Party branch and Village Committee’s wanton encroachment on village interests.

Moreover, this phenomenon of “governed villages” and the violation of village interests has deep systemic roots.

One can easily imagine that if the democratic process had been followed, when 13,000 villagers opposed the village Party branch and the village committee, a peaceful reelection would have sufficed to solve the problem. There definitely would not have been such a tense stand-off between officials and citizens, or a conflict between the police and the people. So, then, something that should have been within the domain of a self-ruling village actually involved the local government. It later turned into a huge disturbance, until even the provincial government could not help but get involved. It doesn’t require much thinking to arrive at this conclusion.

With regards to direct systemic origins, the train of thought that can is emerge is that “village cadre is sovereign, villagers will be governed” and “village cadres exploit the village, villagers will rise in heady protest.” For one, this because relatively few people are involved in the election process, and elections are often fake, or else have serious irregularities. As a result, each election, real or fake, produces cadres with unrestrained power. During their tenure, they are village-level dictators, and they may use their power to get rich through the violation, seizure, and misappropriation of village profits. Then they will use this unlawfully gained money to bribe officials, thus supporting their re-election. They will also bribe villagers in the hopes of directly influencing the election and continuing their time in office. As a result, money is tied up with power. As it has high yields, it can continue lengthening this special thread of profits until a good number of cadres and local officials can revel untiringly in their gains.

So then, we ask again: Why have so few people been involved in so many village elections? Why have so many led to the phenomenon of “village cadres are sovereign, villagers will be governed”? Here, aside from purely local concerns, there are also two deeply rooted ideological and systemic reasons.

The first is that there is no good way to reconcile Party leadership and village sovereignty. The Party and the government are one body. Given the historical fixity of the ties between Party and government, even when grassroots democracy is allowed to develop a bit and the people begin to conceptualize self-governance, this always give way to “Party governance of the people,” “Party control of the people,” the Party system’s direct control of the cells of society from the village to the residential committee, and using the name of “strengthening the Party leaders” as a way for the Party branch to directly hold village power. This of course naturally leads to conflicts with village autonomy rights in the form of top-down interventions, the control of village elections, the damaging of village self-governance, and countless other negative events. This leads to the increasing dearth of checks on cadres’ power and the augmentation of village and local official corruption, exacerbating conflicts among villagers, cadres, and local officials. This also leads to a rise in number and gravity of rural mass incidents (particularly in areas where city and countryside are closely linked), not to mention the lowered esteem for the image of the ruling Party and government. Wukan has exhibited this kind of inertia of thought, a bias towards the system and the spread of its material logic. Wukan is a concrete example of one of many similar national phenomena.

Second, there are serious ramifications to having unfettered, conjoined powers. Currently, while elections at the township and county level essentially exist as mere formalities, after these elections are concluded, there are still no checks and balances to the power system. Instead, power is concentrated and unrestrained. Power at the village, township, and county levels are intimately connected, and thus it is very easy for these two types of authority [i.e. Party and government] to collude vertically and to use one another for selfish gains. In areas where economic profits are high, this is even more so the case. At the same time, unrestrained power at the county level and higher  may go through the county and township levels and link up all the way down to the village in order to create a very long and special chain of profit for interest groups. In this way, by going through this long or short chain, corrupt officials at the top need only go through corrupt rural officials who illegally exploit villagers,and often reap the entirety of those profits. On the other hand, corrupt village officials also get the support of other corrupt officials, and thus can be “reelected for an additional term.” Furthermore, they remain detached from much of the villagers’ opposition and protest, for in doing so, they can continue to make illegal grabs with impunity. We saw that this really was the case in Wukan. In the future, when this all clears up, it will only become more apparent. This is just to say that the Wukan Incident has a national, systemic origin, because it is a microcosm of [what could be] a national event.

In sum, the nationally pervasive roots of the Wukan Incident grow from the failings of a series of ideological and systemic biases. Village autonomy has yet to be fully respected or protected, to the point that many localities still exhibit the “cadres are sovereign, villagers are governed” rural autocratic system.

As a result, in the midst of trying to have a reasonable solution to the Wukan Incident, Guangdong’s provincial committee and provincial government have fully respected and affirmed village autonomy, and have supported village sovereignty. From this, they have also begun to adjust the relationship between Party leadership and village sovereignty. This cannot but be significant as a national model and forerunner.

2. The awakening consciousness of peasant rights inevitably leads to the new development of village autonomy, and the new development of advanced locales inevitably portends a new national trend.

Guangdong Province was a frontier zone for the establishment of reforms and modernization. Advanced areas that are the first to develop are also the areas where new problems first arise and are solved, and consequently are also testing grounds for the general mood and the tide of history. It is this way in China as it is in the world. It is this way for the new directions in finding new solutions, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. It is this way for the basic establishment of systems for these new solutions. And this also gives Wukan’s fair resolution significance as a national model.

Wukan’s fair resolution doubtless has its particular sources in its locality, site of the early consciousness of rural rights  and a corresponding ability to defend rights.

I have paid special attention to the following report:

From 1970 to the present, Wukan’s village Party branch secretary Xue Jing has continuously held his position for 41 years. In Wukan, he is a dictator. “To follow me is to flourish, to oppose me is to perish.” In regards to village land, he openly declared, “I will give this to whomever I wish, and don’t even think about having it if I don’t wish to give it to you.” In recent years, without the knowledge of villagers, he also sold thousands of mu (one person has said over 10,000 mu) of land. The total gains from this sale exceeded 700 million yuan, but he only gave villagers 550 yuan in subsidies. The rest was embezzled by local officials and village cadres. His and many other cadres’ homes have been called two-story “villas” by villagers, and he has become the “God of Wealth” and the guest of honor of many Lufeng and Shanwei municipal officials.

But in the past 40 years, Wukan villagers also seem to have become dependent on the path paved by this long-standing secretary. Some villagers around the age of 40 have understood that “Xue Jing is the village Party branch secretary” since the day they were born. And villagers tacitly accept the corruption and illegal methods of this “long-standing secretary.” They have never seen election ballots, but they will often post announcements proclaiming the successful reappointment of the village Party branch secretary, even though they are probably aware of its fraudulent nature.

As the people are, so are the officials. As the villagers are, so are the cadres. But when the people awaken to democracy and rights, there will be a fundamental change.

In the past few years, the villagers have come to realize that cadres are trying to play a game of embezzlement with their land. More and more, they realize they must protect their own interests.

Up until this year, villagers have just tasted life at home after returning from remote jobs. They have learned about democratic elections from news on the Internet, and that the constitution originally granted them voting rights and the right to be elected.

Within the relatively foreword-thinking environment of Guangdong, villagers have developed a deeper understanding of democracy.

As a result, one of the villagers’ main demands is to “investigate the village committee’s electoral situation.”

As a result, banners saying “return my human rights,” “oppose dictatorship,” and “open elections” have appeared in demonstration assemblies.

As a result, an orderly, well-reasoned, and politically wise struggle for rights has emerged. It was only under aggravating circumstances that some unreasonable behavior understandably shown up.

As a result, under pressing circumstances, democratic elections have produced the “Wukan Villager Interim Council,” and have thus begun to realize Wukan’s “village sovereignty.”

As a result, the entire Wukan Incident has the basic pre-conditions for a reasonable solution.

As a result, one can see that, at least to a large degree, that this kind of high-level grassroots democratic development is a new thing from a relatively advanced area.

Although other areas also have their own degrees of village autonomy, their economic and social bases are clearly not as deep as those in Guangdong’s Wukan.

The kind of democracy that has developed in Wukan has shown even more that economic and social development will lead to a historical trend of democratization. As for the Guangdong Provincial Committee, the provincial government has also responded to the historical tide of the Wukan Incident’s reasonable solution, in accordance with the people’s desires. As a result, the new change resulting in the unity between officials and the people in this advanced area cannot but become a new light for China’s village self-governance and the establishment of grassroots democracy.

3. The signifance of the peaceful resolution of the Wukan Incident for construction of a Chinese constitutional democracy.

The significance [of this] can be summarized in at least three points.

The first is that this once again goes to show us that just as Xiaogang was a crucial link for rural issues in resolving the implementation of the guarantee system, Wukan’s implementation of  democratic “village sovereignty” is also a crucial link in the resolution of rural issues at this present stage.

Indeed, with regards to these mass incidents, one can no longer use “enemy thought” to resolve problems, but must rather use a sincere attitude to “seriously resolve issues relating to the people’s interests.” No doubt, this has already been a big step forward, and is indeed extremely positive and gratifying. It has also had national significance as a model. However, since an unreasonable system leads to the accumulation of conflicts and will stir up their causes, it is then natural to start taking action to resolve problems via reform and system-building, which are the biggest impediments to decreasing mass incidents. The government cannot be a firefighter, frantically and unceasingly running about.

Therefore, within Guangdong’s reasonable solution to the Wukan Incident, we see what is of the most basic, long-term, and universal significance: that is, to strike down real taboos and strongly affirm village autonomy. This method must be promoted nationally if we are to stymy rural mass incidents and truly build a harmonious society.

Second, this shows us that the resolution of problems between Party leadership and village autonomy is key to actualizing village self-governance. This resolution is, namely, to solve the problems of the relationship between Party leaders and villager self-determination.

In regards to this question, Comrade Xiaoping has stated, “Why have our production teams not brought about democracy? If the production leader is not qualified, he should be eliminated. Members ought to have rights. Now some cadres have too much power, and have undertaken elections that are determined by a few people. So now the countryside has a hegemony, and has produced hegemons” (Chronicle of Deng Xiaoping, p. 379).

He went on to say that the Party “is a tool of the people to fulfill a special historical task at a special time in history.” “To affirm this concept of the Party is to affirm that the Party does not have the right to go above the people; nor the right to favor, monopolize, or enforce commands; nor the right to domineer the people (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, pp. 217-218).

He especially noted, “The core of the work of the Party is to support and guide the people so that each person can be the master of his destiny. The entire country is like this, and all levels of Party organization are like this (Chronicle of Deng Xiaoping, p. 685).

The “separation of Party and government” of which Deng spoke actually includes the “separation of powers between the Party and mass organizations.” He said, “At the central and local levels, powers have been separated on several occasions, but on none of these occasions has it touched upon the issue of the separation of powers between the Party… and mass organizations.” He opposed “the excessive concentration of power” and advocated that “affairs that should not or cannot be managed” by leading bodies be “put below, put into… the the hands of society. Let them handle such affairs according to true democratic centralization.” Then these matters will be “handled very well” (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 2, pp. 329, 287).

In fact, the contents of Deng’s theory can guide us to the resolution of problems between Party leaders and village autonomy:

1. Villages should implement democratic elections, minister to their own affairs, and end village tyranny.

2. Villages should be self-governing and resolve their own problems, rather than the Party. The Party should certainly not control the destiny of the village.

3. The core of the Party’s role in the village is to support and guide village autonomy.

4. “How should the Party committee lead? It should pay attention only to major affairs, not minor ones” (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3, p. 177).  ”Party leaders must embody the Party’s trajectory, guiding principles, and policies in both plan and action.” (Chronicle of Deng Xiaoping, p. 685).

This is to say that the role of the Party in the village should primarily be political and macroscopic. Its role is not to use village Party offices to strip the villagers of their right to self-rule, and certainly not to use those offices to exert total control over the destiny of the village. Although village autonomy has not yet been realized, the driving principle behind it has already been raised some time ago.

In fact, this is precisely the line of thinking which follows as the revolutionary party becomes the ruling party. During the revolution, “the Party branches are established in the villages” and “the branch office are the center of village power.” Indeed, this is a practical requirement during revolution. However, after the Party takes power, its entire train of thought must shift. The ruling party has executive power. Village authority is not government power, but rather a right of the village to autonomy. This means the ruling party ought not deprive the village of autonomy and directly wield power over it, but rather must support village self-rule; that is, it must support the villagers managing their own affairs, even if the village Party office and the village committee have harmonious relations, and even if members of either office are one in the same. The Party must also support the village committee as the center of village power. With regards to village leaders, the Party must primarily “in both theory and practice embody Party trajectory, principle, and policy,” and secondarily manifest the utility of village Party members as a leading model. If in certain locales village Party members cannot act as models in this way, the Party may act as a national leader for the village for those principled, broad-viewed, institutional village leaders.

From this, we see that although the events at Wukan caused the total disintegration of the corrupt village Party office and the “temporary village representative council” produced by democratic village elections become the sole source of village authority, the Guangdong provincial Party committee and provincial government still affirmed [the council's] legitimacy and are working with the council to resolve the issues at hand. This is not at all a negation of Party leadership at the village level, but actually is a renunciation of the contradiction between Party leadership and village autonomy and the previous state of hopeless confusion. It fundamentally affirms and supports village self-rule. For village authority to rest outside of the Party branch office is no longer considered a denial of Party leadership. In confronting the people’s needs and the true spirit of reform, the provincial authorities have put into practice the fundamental concept of “supporting and guiding the people to self-rule as the core of the Party’s work,” and thus in one stroke turned around a critical situation, embarking on a new path of reform. This is obviously not to say that local Party administration will not be needed in the future. There are so many village Party members, there will naturally be a Party office.  It is simply that village power structure will from now on be balanced and unequivocal. The relationship between Party leadership and village authority will be reformed accordingly.

Clearly, this thoroughly practical reform of village autonomy has just started, and thus the separation of powers which accompany autonomy continue to evolve (there are places which already have checks and balances in place). The development of this new reform still has a long way to go before it is perfected and popularized. In this process, we must also completely reformulate the laws of village autonomy, such that the laws are perfected to most benefit workable self-rule. Although the road ahead will still be full of obstacles, we must simply follow the trail of “the organic union of Party leadership, self-rule, and the rule of law.” This will undoubtedly lead us to a harmonious, ascendant, and bright future. Otherwise, if this process of reform is again cut short, the Party and government will be forced to put out fires, until at last there is a conflagration that no one can quell.

Thirdly, the Wukan Incident has revealed to us that the protection of village autonomy requires a cordon, and that cordon is the democratic reform of local rights, especially at the county level. This will prevent the relatively weak village from infringement upon and destruction of its autonomy at the hands of a more powerful governing body. From the village to the county, the base level of democracy will thus be established, the greater part of China will enter into a democratic and harmonious new era, and the country’s foundations will stabilize. I believe that if all goes well, in about a decade our country will be able to make a great historical leap to positive, peaceful, and profitable political reform.