Wu Si on Wukan and Civil Rights

Wu Si, Chief Editor of the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋), contributed his thoughts to an online forum discussing the December 22 People’s Daily editorial “What Does ‘Wukan‘s Turn’ Mean for Us?” Hu Deping also wrote commentary. (Original text is here on CDT Chinese site, translated by Harriet Xu)

Based on the news I’ve seen, I want to share a few thoughts. A lot of this news is incomplete, and I also haven’t spoken to anyone who’s been on the scene. A lot of my thoughts are conjectures, and therefore might be off the mark.


I. In the turn of events at Wukan, we have seen two modes of thought, and from these two corresponding types of resolution.

The first mode of thought is that of class struggle, or a hostile “us-versus-them” type of thinking based on zero-sum conflict. When an outside profit-seeking group shows up and rubs “us” the wrong way, this immediately sparks feelings of enmity. If there is some sign of outside influence or some other intruding power, people’s internal defenses will be raised, and they will use every possible method to counter the intruder. Given our contemporary conditions, this mode of thought neither practical nor realistic.

 How did this incident escalate to such a fever pitch? A working group tasked after the incident says the people have voiced their desire for basic justice, and that if these issues had been carefully considered from the beginning, the situation would not have become so magnified. My guess is that at the beginning, this might have been confined to a small group of miscreants who wished to protect their own interests. They were at odds with the villagers. However, at some point, mediators perhaps regarded this as an intra-village dispute. To take this one step further, if some people had used illegal methods in order to exploit others, then this would have just been a conflict between criminals and victims. These conflicts have conventional solutions: filing lawsuits, going to court, making civil and criminal appeals, etc.

The problem is that once you touch upon [issues relating to] land and the political regime, the courts will not accept cases, and the government will not uphold justice. The villagers will be at a dead-end, and this will incite a mass incident. Because of this, higher level mediators will sense the risk that people will stir up trouble, influence the stability of [those in] power, and topple the base of political system. These [attacks] must be countered. At this time, mediators seem to have been abducted by some gangster’s private interests. We have seen that profit issues lie behind the us-versus-them mentality. If there is an economic crime, then criminals will welcome us-versus-them thinking, and are quite willing to place their own interests within the frame of government interests and their hostile relations with villagers within the frame of village-government conflicts. They might even bring the Party into it.

The us-versus-them mentality has reappeared at each level of this event’s process of resolution. I have heard the Shanwei municipal secretary, who mentioned the influence of outside hostile actors and the interference of the media, [both of which he argued] are threats. Here, the theme of us-versus-them became prominent.

Later, the provincial committee work group intervened, and Deputy Secretary Zhu gave voice to another mode of thought. He said that the villagers’ demands were basically reasonable. This “reasonableness” of course has a reference point: civil rights are the conventional standard of a society ruled by law. This is yours, this is not yours. If this is yours, then your rights must be respected. If you want more, then both sides can negotiate and let the law ultimately decide. If someone violates your rights, or even breaks the law, then the violator will be penalized, and those who uphold rights will be supported.

This reasoning leads to the “civil rights mode of thinking.” From the point of view of the government, this is the concept of rule of law. Civilian disputes over profit have no “us” or “them”–even if those involved have the us-versus-them mentality–and have nothing to do with the government. The government must only adjudicate with the law as its basis and evaluate whether each side has acted appropriately. Taken a step further, if emphasis is placed on an independent court ruling, and the court is not disturbed by administrative organs, then we will enter into a “constitutional government mode of thought.”

The working group publicized five principles, the last two of which are “total transparency and the primacy of the law.” As citizens demand basic rights and wish to have law-based solutions, there is nothing [for the government] to be ashamed of–of course, there should be no qualms with transparency. Transparency is the foundation of the rule of law, and is only logical. With regards to citizen rights, we should openly discuss whether your demands are appropriate and if any [rights] have been infringed upon. If they have been infringed upon, then we should step in on your behalf and discuss the issue at hand. If illegal behavior has taken place, then we will try to resolve problems by using the law as a guide.

Based on this working group’s thought process, [it seems that] after a crisis has passed, it is best to follow the rule of law and let the court adjudicate. Currently, the court have limited authority, and it is hard to avoid administrative interference. Working groups are necessary–however, in the future, we must resolve issues with independent court rulings and to use a constitutional government model to more thoroughly address problems.

From these two different modes of thought [us-versus-them and civil society], there are two methods of resolution.

The us-versus-them mentality easily gives way to conflict. We know that historically there have been many tragic events that have led to both sides getting seriously hurt. When the Wukan Incident escalated, it seemed to be going down that path and was conceivably going to lead to violent dispute and strong suppression, with the chief instigators getting punished and accomplices let off more easily. The public would not accept this and would be in an uproar. How many years would pass before the innocent could be rehabilitated and their unjust charges removed?

But as soon as this mentality shifts; disputes are regarded as civil rights in a diverse society; demands are regarded as either excessive or normal; and the reasonableness of demands is carefully discussed; then we will be acting properly and in a way that gives us dignity. Contemporary China has a diverse society and a market economy. Relations are primarily [based on] an exchange of profit. There still are illegal exchanges of power and money, as well as the black market; but this is, after all, the market and not the battlefield. I see that the villagers have adopted this mentality, and their situation has changed drastically. Even though this issue has not been resolved, if they continue down this path, no real disruptions will take place, and everything will ultimately be more or less fair. Both sides will have talks, and there will be no misunderstandings or eruptions of hostility.

To sum up, these two mode of thought lead to these two kinds of resolution, which in turn can lead to two completely different outcomes. I see that there has been a good resolution in Guangdong–to the credit, and not discredit, of its government.


II. The source of these two modes of thought can be found within the system.

The us-versus-them mentality has a deep theoretical basis within the Chinese Communist Party, and also has a very deep history. With several decades of war as its backdrop, this process has given body to theories of class warfare and a united front.

Underneath these historical roots lies a practical interest. Recently, a teacher said that us-versus-them is safe if used internally–it shows, at least, that one is taking a stance and protecting the Party’s interests. On the contrary, as soon as one frames things in terms of civil rights, it will be attacked–isn’t it an affront to our interests? Since it harms the interests of the ideology, it may also harm material interest. Are you going after pocket change or public funds? You want to deal with offenders, but isn’t the offender a powerful insider? Many people are willing to preserve the us-versus-them mode of thought since it can protect the collective interest, and find approval within the group. To look at it from another point of view might actually cast you as a troublemaker, and subject you to all kinds of attacks, such as accusations that you’ve made concessions to the adversary. Therefore, this first mode of thought has a very complex background.

The second mode of thought, that of respecting civil rights, also has a very interesting background.

The working group raised these five principles: “place importance on public will; put the masses first; people are foremost; have total transparency; and give primacy to the law.” Let’s first talk about the public interest. In this the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology has a long-standing history, that is, “serve the people.” “Everything stems from the interest of the people, not some individual or small group.” Additionally, there is the principle of “seeking truth from facts.” These all support respect for and protection of the civil rights mode of thought.

As for people being foremost and giving primacy to the law, these have their basis in the constitution and central directives. The concepts “putting the people first” and “scientific development” are the wording of leaders. Who, then, are the people? They are the citizens. To put “the people first” is really to put “civil rights first.” If civil rights are foremost, then a constitutional government will have a robust ideological basis. And it coincides with what we have been advocating, rather than being something alien.

Now, what is the substance of “scientific development”? If you make society an object of study and use the scientific method to determine what its rules are, what kind of scientific rules will we see?

Assuming that conditions remain stable, and there are no great disasters or wars, and that it is an industrial and commercial society–then under these conditions, giving citizens more economic rights and economic freedom will make society prosper. Giving citizens more political rights and a democratic rule of law will lead to a relatively stable society. To use scientific principles to express this, the rule is: civil rights and economic prosperity are related to political stability. This is a fundamental principle that applies globally and historically. If [we are] in accordance with this rule, then development and the protection of civil rights, economic prosperity, and a harmonious society will each be logical and natural outgrowths. In short, the current ruling Party’s slogan contains the ideological basis for a constitutional government.

We have just mentioned that the market economy provides a foundation for facts. Concepts should reflect reality. Real life is not a battle to the death, but rather a win-win marketplace. Us-versus-them thinking is not in touch with reality; thinking oriented towards civil society is.


III. How can pressure become motivation?

First, Xiaogang left its impression, and this was pressure. Pressure can motivate reform. I think this incident [in Wukan] had several pressure points, or what we might call people’s issues.

The first is the issue of land, or really property rights. This pressure was just discussed; it is a national phenomenon. Can we use this particular example to clarify the national property rights system?

The second is the issue of village-level elections. People have always thought this issue had already been resolved, but village elections are far from perfect. Only if they goes so far as to attract the attention of the outside media–to the level of the attention given to the “Wukan Uprising”–only then can village election issues be resolved. Originally, it seemed as if the problem had already been solved, but it actually had a big hole. If we had seized this opportunity to check the problems in the electoral procedure, especially in a village as large as Wukan with a population of almost 20,000, how would elections take place? In such a large village election, there will be high organizational costs, and people could easily free ride. Without a crisis, it would be difficult to have an effective system to supervise power and the political cycle. The Wukan Incident might turn into a conflict, making it seek like it’s over when the problem is only half-solved. I hope that Guangdong can use this incident to push a little further, and work on improving village elections.

The third is the issue of justice and law enforcement. After such a large incident, I have not seen any relevant reports from the courts. Going to a court to file an appeal should be the most common recourse to solve rights disputes. Why has that not been the case? It’s been said that the courts should make fair judgments. Can we use this incident to clarify the general situation a bit? One cannot arbitrarily dismiss cases; these conflicts will not disappear by being ignored by the courts. If disputes are just forced down a political channel, the villagers will go to the government and incite political struggles. Can Guangdong or Shanwei start reforms, and convert this pressure into a motivation to establish the rule of law?

The fourth is the question of media reports. If no reports are made, then this can only lead to the dissemination of rumors. Here, transparency is an asset. Hopefully this will lead to a good solution.

The fifth is the possibility that the resolution to this conflict will lead to a new method of resolution in the next conflict, and that will lead to yet another. Comparing the two, can they become a definite thing? To solve problems with civil rights and the rule of law in mind, there must be a paradigm shift for cadres. These cadres must also change the way they mediate crises. I think there is a relatively large chance that in the end, turning pressure into a force for reform and giving rise to systemic changes are possible. In this way, I think the events in Guangdong have been good, and have been an opportunity. In the process of solving people’s issues and crises, the establishment, development, and maturation of new ways of thought and new behaviors will open a new road for Chinese society.


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