Go to the The Chinadaily US edition website and type “Wukan” into the search engine. Nothing shows up. Not a solitary article. Who cares, right? Perhaps the 20,000 people in Wukan that took over their town, and are now engaged in a stand-off with local authorities after a local man died in police custody care.
Fortunately, even though Chinadaily prefers to pretend the protests aren’t happening, putting on a pretty, harmonious Chinese face to the outside world, western media outlets have their own sources. According to a Bloomberg headline, police with shotguns are staffing checkpoints, preventing people from entering the town.
The dispute is over land usage, an ages-old focal point of Chinese conflict. Land reform was one of the first initiatives pursued by the Chinese Communist Party upon accession to power. Under the CCP, landlords routinely lost their property, and often their lives. Even small landholders in villages such as Wukan were not safe from the tenant’s rage, succored as they were by the CCP’s heavy hand. It was the revenge of the peasant against years of oppression and hardship. But instead of improving the lot of the Chinese peasant, it simply spread his misery around. By the time the Communists were through with their last major initiative (the Cultural Revolution) everyone, save the CCP cadre and their fellow travelers, was equally miserable, barely eking out an existence in a land that had once produced fabulous wealth.
After the death of Mao and the marginalization of his widow effectively ended the communist dream, the CCP realized how ineffective collectivization had been at improving the lot of China, and led the country to economic liberalization, embracing industrialization and capitalism as the means to improved prospects for China, and increased riches for themselves. In the meantime, the CCP retained the state machinery for repressing dissent that had developed during communism.
The CCP cut the cord with the Chinese people. Instead of everyone standing and falling together, success would depend on individual effort and skill, and of course, connections, avarice and greed. The poor and dispossessed would again be exploited and oppressed by the rich and powerful, but things couldn’t be any worse than the disastrous experiments in communism that left upwards of twenty million dead of starvation. Equality in misery quickly yielded to a huge disparity in wealth. A few Chinese, aided and abetted by, and well-connected to, the CCP, grew fantastically wealthy. A modest middling class of wage earners arose. These lived better than they had as peasants, but only a little, and not remotely comparable to their counterparts in the developed world. For the vast bulk of Chinese—the peasants in the countryside—life carried on more or less the same.
The unique hybrid of state and private enterprise that arose in China after communism now stretches its tentacles into the countryside, devouring land and resources and people along the way. The dispute in Wukan is one of many that have occurred over the last few years. According to the previously-cited Bloomberg article, there were over 500 riots, strikes and protest over the last year, a doubling of the annual amount in just five years.
Wukan’s troubles started in September when a local pig farm was sold to developers wishing to build a high-rise apartment building. Xue Jinbo was leading a march of about 400 villagers protesting the land sale when he was arrested. During two interrogations, he admitted his guilt at having disrupted public services and damaging public property. Arrested December 9th, he died in police custody December 11th, sparking outrage among the locals, leading to the current standoff.
Wukan is in the Guangdong Province, about 150 kilometers east of Hong Kong. According to an article in the Chinadaily, Guangdong boasts the highest GDP of any province in China. (Chinadaily is apparently like so many local papers in the US, except on a national scale, operating as a cheerleader for the region and a mouthpiece for the local leadership.) But growth is slowing, in tandem with slowdowns in Europe and the US.
Guangdong touts itself as “the world’s factory”; its economy depends on manufacturing cheap consumer goods for export, which in turn depends on keeping its factor inputs, including labor, as cheap as any in the world. It is an unsustainable economic model, and the strains are beginning to show. The minimum wage required to lure a worker from the countryside is going up, by almost 22% in the last year, but still, at only about $200/month, is hardly enough for Chinese workers to create much domestic demand for the trinkets and baubles they produce. At the same time, China’s wage costs are indirectly at least partially responsible for demand stagnation in Europe and the US, in so far as the wages Chinese capitalists pay their workers causes unemployment among its trading partners. Not only is a Chinese worker not paid enough to buy what he produces, neither is an American, unemployed because his factory was offshored to China, able to afford what the Chinese capitalists are trying to sell.
The Chinese Communist Party is surely aware of all this, but seems unable to act, except to repress dissent as it inevitably arises, and control information flow to keep it from spreading. Their strategy of repressing dissent and thwarting information flows is as unsustainable as is the economic model it purports to serve.
Marx observed that capitalism is inherently unstable because it is inherently inequitable. Capitalism always tends to a concentration in wealth, as the Chinese experience (and the US’s, for that matter) these last several decades stand in testament. Concentrated wealth is unstable because it requires the application of ever-greater force to maintain the unequal wealth distribution. The sheer numbers of the impoverished eventually grows so large that no force capable of being purchased by the capitalists is able to contain them.
When the economic slowdown in China’s export markets gains sufficient steam that Chinese workers are no better off than they were as peasants under communism, the Chinese government will be forced to again choose (as it had in the forties and fifties), between its cadre of fabulously rich capitalists (often also a part of the government) and its people. The Chinese capitalist model of development will be proved as fragile and unstable and incapable as communism in executing the essential function of any economic system—to enhance the material welfare of its participants as equitably and harmoniously as possible.