Wukan and the Rule of Law

The Jamestown Foundation’s Willy Lam reflects on the conciliatory approach taken by CCP officials in Guangdong to bring an end to the Wukan protests last month, warning that the fate of future mass incidents rests on the willingness of the authorities to uphold the rule of law:

Does the Wukan case indeed mean that central- and local-level officials will henceforward lean toward relatively conciliatory and non-violent means to tackle protests by peasants and other disaffected elements in society? At least on the surface, Wang Yang’s handling of Wukan has won the support of the state media. The People’s Daily hailed Guangzhou’s efforts as an example of “accommodating and defusing contradictions and conflicts in a good way.” It praised Guangdong leaders for “grasping well the aspirations of the masses.” The commentary noted whether officials could satisfactorily resolve questions regarding the masses’ malcontents was a “yardstick of cadres’ ties with the people as well as their leadership ability.” The Global Times praised Guangdong leaders for “putting the interests of the public in the first place when handling land disputes” (People’s Daily, December 22, 2011; Global Times [Beijing], December 22, 2011; Bloomberg, December 22, 2011). The Wukan model also won plaudits from members of the remnant liberal wing of the party, a reference to the followers of radical, pro-West modernizers represented by the late party secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. “I hope that the Wukan incident can push society to establish a system which is based on democracy and the rule of law,” said Hu Deping, the respected son of Hu Yaobang, “I hope that when we are faced with similar problems in the future, we can resort to the rule of law and negotiation” (South China Morning Post, December 30, 2011; Sina.com, December 30, 2011).

The Wukan protests, as noted last week by Chinese author Yu Hua, demonstrated a bilateral lack of faith in China’s legal system and a preference for administrative actions and political arrangements to maintain stability in the face of complaints. Protests are also the most effective tool for China’s ordinary citizens to get things done, The Diplomat’s David Cohen observed last week. Still, recent high-profile comments from suggest that the events in Wukan struck a chord inside the party. China legal expert Stanley Lubman writes in The Wall Street Journal about a “provocative” commentary about Wukan from within the CCP, posted to an online forum by CCP history magazine editor Wu Si:

Wu offers no sure path to attain the goal he advocates, but his conclusion is most dramatic: “To solve problems with civil rights and the rule of law in mind, there must be a paradigm shift for cadres,” who need to change the way the way they “mediate crises.” In solving social conflicts, he writes, new ways of thought “will open a new road” for Chinese society.

Invocation of the rule of law has been a ritual for some years in China, but it is usually only activists and law reformers who are willing to suggest it is an entirely distinctive approach to ordering society. The call for a “paradigm” change in a party magazine suggests something more radical than the usual slogans and formulas.

Some Western observers, including this writer, have tried to incorporate into their analyses of Chinese law the idea of “legal culture” — the way people in a society, from top to bottom, think about where law comes from, its aims and its methods. That is what Wu Si touches on when he suggests that cadres rethink about how they address social conflict. He is proposing that in practice they consciously place a much greater reliance on law and on legal institutions, which could become “a force for reform” leading to “systemic changes.”

See also CDT coverage of the original text and English translation of Wu Si’s comments, as well as the commentary from Hu Deping.