A Tale of Two Protests

McClatchy Newspapers’ Tom Lasseter, one of the first Western journalists to report from within the blockade of Wukan in December, writes that a recent police crackdown on land grab protests in Zhejiang’s Panhe village indicates that Wukan has not turned out to be a model for the rest of the nation yet:

Earlier this month, people in Panhe marched to protest what they said was the theft by local leaders of communal lands. The complaints were met by a crackdown. Police and plainclothes security men hauled away at least 30 people. Villagers said the roundup targeted the protest organizers they’d selected to negotiate with the government.

“The officials took away all of the young people who were getting on the Internet,” said one farmer, a 50-year-old man who like many interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.

Panhe has become another in a long list of Chinese villages where locals say corrupt officials and well-connected businessmen conspired to steal land or otherwise rob the poor.

When residents stage demonstrations in hopes of gaining justice, the main leaders are often whisked away in police cars. After the government makes perfunctory promises, all goes back to the way it was before.

Panhe has seemed the most likely location for “Wukan 2.0″ after villagers claimed earlier this month that they had modeled their tactics after Wukan. The Diplomat’s Ai-Shan Lu, however, echoes Lasseter’s claims that Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang’s handling of the situation in Wukan appears to be the exception rather than the rule thus far:

In sharp contrast with Wang’s handling of the dispute, local government officials in Shanwei and Lufeng first labeled the incident as a “riot incited by foreign subversives.” In line with this thinking, the Financial Times quoted an unnamed senior Chinese leader stating: “it would be better for a clear directive from the central authorities to over-react rather than to fall short.” According to a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, other provincial officials complained that Wang set a terrible precedent since other people in protests could demand a similar response. 

During a visit to a village in Guangzhou on February 4, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that “farmers’ rights must be protected,” and in response to widespread dissatisfaction with local officials Wen emphasized the importance of “maintaining direct elections at the village-level.”

Wen’s statements were widely seen as an indication of high-level support for Wang’s practice in Wukan. So, does the government’s handling of the Wukan incident indicate that the CCP’s leadership is becoming more open-minded toward democracy? Although protests against village officials occurred in several rural villages following the Wukan incident, none successfully appealed for direct elections to replace incumbent village chiefs (as in Wukan). So Wukan appears to be more of an exception rather than the rule thus far. In fact, most uprisings were suppressed by local governments, except for any provincial intervention.

 See also CDT coverage of foreign journalists attacked by plainclothes henchmen while investigating the land grab protests in Panhe earlier this month.