December 30th, 2011 | Caixin Wukan Revolt Shows China’s Need for Fair Procedures to Resolve Conflict
More large-scale conflicts will occur in China unless mechanisms are developed to resolve disputes between the government and people
In the face of social tensions, the government aims to keep isolated protests from mushrooming into much larger problems, and for its responsiveness in handling the Wukan revolt, the Guangdong Provincial Party Committee deserves credit. Despite this, the episode is still cause for concern.
The Wukan revolt, which escalated into an intense confrontation between villagers and government officials and lasted for several months, has subsided. The Guangdong Provincial Working Group went to the village and responded to the appeals of angry villagers.
The cause of the episode and its evolution are straightforward. Governance in the village was undemocratic, and land rights were infringed upon. Villagers called for redress, but their concerns were ignored. Similar circumstances can be found in all mass incidents involving land disputes in rural areas. But the fact a fairly minor dispute evolved into a huge confrontation that caught the world’s attention and required the involvement of the provincial party committee and the sending of a working group to resolve it suggests that the Wukan dispute exposed a failure of important mechanisms and institutions. This is worthy of attention.
In reviewing the episode, there are three things that we feel are regrettable.
The first is the government’s indifference to the appeals of the masses. Large-scale land grabs occurred repeatedly in Wukan, and farmers received little compensation. In 2009, villagers began reporting their problems to the local government. But when the entire village boiled over and a villager died in police custody, local officials still responded with suppression. Even after the involvement of the provincial party committee, local officials were still reprimanding villagers for “disregarding the overall situation.”
Our second regret is that backwards political thinking is so deeply rooted. The cause of the dispute is clear. Even though the confrontation evolved into a large-scale demonstration involving some radical behavior by individuals, the demands of the villagers were still limited to land issues. But, local officials insisted on blaming “rotten foreign media” for turning a common local dispute into a much larger issue. This only aggravated the problem.
The third is the obvious difficulty involved in transforming China’s development pattern. The underlying cause of the Wukan saga was the conflict between villagers’ land rights and extensive development that requires land to increase economic growth. The government’s adherence to this pattern caused it to repeatedly ignore the reasonable appeals of villagers. As long as the government cooperates so closely with developers – to the profit of both – it will always employ strong measures to defend its interests.
Wang Yang, secretary of provincial party committee, said the Wukan episode may have seemed accidental, but it was in fact inevitable. Thus, the evolution of the confrontation deserves a closer look.
All such land disputes in China have a certain predictable quality. First, there is a small incident when individual or collective interests are damaged. These are normal disputes, but some, as in Wukan, mushroom into larger confrontations. One cannot help but ask whether there is a way to keep this from happening. Our thinking on this issue has brought about three concerns.
Our first is that the system for distributing wealth in the country is becoming rigid. The best way to prevent disputes such as occurred in Wukan is a fairer slicing of the economic pie. A good system must fairly distribute resources and resolve tensions and conflicts. But as Wukan showed, there are serious problems with this system in China.
The second worry is that amid such disputes, the government always shows itself to have a vested interest, and the judicial system cannot play the role of impartial referee. This means the police have to be called in, and this is not an option that the government can resort to in every instance.
Our third concern is that the mechanism to resolve conflict is obviously slow and ineffective. Disputes and conflicts occur in every society. Good order does not come from the elimination of conflict, but from mature, predictable and fair procedures for resolving it. But as the Wukan saga showed, there was no procedure for the villagers and government to use. It is this lack of a sound conflict resolution mechanism that causes small conflicts to become large ones.
The unrest in Wukan is not an isolated problem. Reliable estimates suggest that there are more than 100,000 episodes of unrest in China each year. The Guangdong Provincial Party Committee’s analysis of the problem and responsiveness are laudable. We hope that officials across the country take note of its efforts.
Wang correctly said the cause of the confrontation was in the long-term accumulation of tensions related to economic and social development. “It is an inevitable result of our work with ‘one hard hand and one soft hand,’” he said. This phrase refers to the use of a strong government to promote economic growth and inadequate attention paid to social management. This approach always stresses that “development is the final word” when conflicts arise. In situations where the people insist on defending their rights, local governments simply resort to this argument to suppress them. However, the Wukan revolt is proof that only when the interests of the people are taken into account along with economic development can harmony truly be achieved.
If a chief aim of the government’s work is preventing minor conflicts from exploding into larger confrontations, then sound mechanisms and fair procedures must be established throughout the country. To this end, we must change our ways of thinking and transform the pattern of governance and development.
Transformation of the pattern of governance is at the heart of this change. As the people become increasingly aware of their civil rights – something brought on by the market economy – all levels of government should study the use of consultation and negotiation to resolve conflicts of interest and investigate the creation of a mechanism that makes interaction between the government and the people procedural. Without these advances, episodes such as occurred in Wukan will only occur again and again in thousands of villages across the country.