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A turnabout response on China corruption Actions in Wukan protest could help lift official, or prove to be his undoing

January 3, 2012

The International Herald Tribune Asia Edition (The International Herald Tribune - Asia Pacific edition)
Saturday, December 31, 2011,


In a year of China under lockdown, when dissident writers have been meted breathtaking prison sentences and the mere whisper of Jasmine-style protest spurred mass detentions, perhaps the riskiest thing a Chinese politician can do is put his iron glove on the shelf. Which makes Wang Yang’s gamble these past weeks in Wukan all the more interesting. Mr. Wang, the up-and-coming Communist Party secretary of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, faced a political turning point when 13,000 irate residents of Wukan evicted their leaders and barricaded themselves in their coastal village for 13 days in a last-straw uprising against local corruption. Given a choice of storming the village with armed police officers or conceding their complaints had merit, Mr. Wang chose the latter. And in a single morning, he defused a standoff that had drawn unflattering worldwide news coverage. The coup won him praise in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, which called it an act of ‘‘political courage’’ in a tense situation. Some analysts said it may strengthen his already strong prospects to land a seat on China’s elite ruling body, the nine-member Standing Committee of the party’s Politburo, when a wave of mandatory retirements vacates seven of the seats this coming year. And it raised the hopes of those who want someone liberal — even as defined by China’s restrictive definitions — to push for political and social change at the highest level of China’s leadership. ‘‘He seems to favor reform,’’ said Zhang Lifan, a historian formerly with the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ‘‘At least Mr. Wang realizes that maintaining stability with force and violence is both economically and politically unsustainable, and came up with an alternative that seems to work better.’’ Yuan Weishi, a historian retired from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said: ‘‘I have high hopes for Wang Yang. I think he’s a serious and down-to-earth official who wants real progress.’’ But as the travails of China’s best known quasi-liberal, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, amply show, having a soft heart for the dispossessed gets a politician only so far in a party where stability is the trump card. ‘‘How high can a man jump?’’ said Yan Lieshan, a senior editor of Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper known for hard-hitting reporting. ‘‘If officials overstep the limits set by the central government, their positions will become untenable.’’ And in fact, while Mr. Wang has sometimes talked boldly about how power should not be concentrated in a ‘‘minority of elites,’’ many liberal-minded analysts characterize his own initiatives in Guangdong as modest, at best. ‘‘Wang Yang’s problem is when you try to make reform happen inside the system, if you go too fast you hurt the interests of others, and they will gang up on you to eliminate you,’’ said Mr. Zhang, the historian. Like President Hu Jintao, widely considered his patron, Mr. Wang, 56, comes from modest circumstances in Anhui, one of China’s poorest provinces. Forced to leave school at 17 to work in a food factory, he got his political start in the early 1980s in Anhui’s Communist Party Youth League, serving under Mr. Hu, who led the organization. Following impressive stints in local, provincial and national jobs, he gained two posts in 2007: membership on the 24-member Politburo and appointment as party secretary of Guangdong, China’s most populous province and the government’s mini-laboratory for more progressive policies. Almost immediately, he talked of ‘‘thought emancipation’’ and the need to pioneer change — and just as quickly hit headwinds. On the economic front, he tried to use administrative levers to replace low-end, heavily polluting workshops and factories with high-tech, value-added industries. That caused fierce resistance from local officials, who argued that deserting the factories that drove Guangdong’s export-based economy would be fiscal suicide. Lin Jiang, an economics professor at Sun Yat-sen University, said Mr. Wang tried to implement a basically sound policy too hastily, costing him crucial local support. Still, he credits Mr. Wang for reaching outside traditional circles for fresh points of view. On the political front, Mr. Wang started a campaign for ‘‘Happy Guangdong,’’ derided by critics as empty sloganeering. But he also spoke more seriously of officials’ need to heed the ‘‘sunken voices’’ of the masses. In June, he declared that ‘‘the economic rights of some of the grass roots have not been protected and their political rights are not being realized.’’ Solving those problems, he added, is more important than ‘‘singing and praising glories.’’ Many took that as a jab at Bo Xilai, the ambitious party secretary of Chongqing municipality who has pushed to revive Maoist culture and is often portrayed as Mr. Wang’s rival. But Mr. Wang’s apparent support for greater political openness has not borne much fruit. Six months into his tenure, he considered making Shenzhen, the commercial hub of more than 10 million that is considered the birthplace of Chinese economic reforms, a showcase for political reform. The plan envisioned a gradual shift to the direct election of many officials, strengthened local legislatures and a study of how the party-controlled judiciary could be made independent. None of that came to pass. ‘‘The plan was really bold and probably too radical,’’ said Xiao Bin, an economics professor at Sun Yat-sen University. At an August 2008 meeting in Shenzhen, he said, he warned Mr. Wang and others that ‘‘anything so comprehensive coming out of Shenzhen would send shock waves around the country’’ — and ultimately backfire. Instead, Mr. Wang approved more mundane administrative reforms in a more obscure district called Shunde, combining 41 separate government departments and their parallel party structures into 16. Scholars say the new structure is more efficient, with fewer party functionaries lacking clear duties. Mr. Wang also allowed Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to publish its budget for the first time in October 2009. While a national law passed the previous year allowed Chinese citizens to request such information, it also gave officials wide latitude to withhold it to protect state secrets or society’s interests. Indeed, on the same day that Guangzhou posted figures for 114 agencies online, Shanghai declared its budget a state secret. So many people tried to view the Guangzhou budget that the Web site’s server crashed. After angry citizens complained that the city had allocated more than 74 million renminbi, or $11 million, to operate kindergartens for the children of government workers, the city agreed to gradually reduce the subsidy. Guangdong also made it easier for nongovernmental organizations like charities and environmental groups to register as legal entities. As of next July, organizations will no longer be required to find a ‘‘responsible supervisor’’ — typically a government-run organization with a party committee — to sponsor their registration. Provincial officials say the change could bolster the development of civil society in a province where the number of non-governmental organizations is already rising more than three times as fast as the national average. If such loosening is unorthodox, it poses few political risks compared with those Mr. Wang could face by taking a more tolerant approach to anti-government demonstrations. His peaceful settlement of Wukan’s uprising earns praise now in Beijing. But that could turn into accusations of soft-heartedness and strategic miscalculation should his conciliatory approach lead to more and bolder protests. Even some of Guangdong’s local party cadres sound exasperated in the face of the rising demands to settle complaints before they spiral into unrest. Consider the Dec. 19 outburst from Zheng Yanxiong, the party secretary of the city whose territory includes Wukan, two days before Mr. Wang’s emissary worked to settle the villagers’ grievances. ‘‘There’s only one group of people who really experience added hardships year after year. Who are they? Cadres, that’s who. Me included,’’ Mr. Zheng railed during a session with Chinese reporters. ‘‘Your powers decline every day, and you have fewer and fewer methods at your disposal — but your responsibility grows bigger and bigger every day. ‘‘Ordinary people want more and more every day. They grow smarter every day, and they are harder and harder to control,’’ he railed. ‘‘Today’s government officials are having a hard time,’’ he concluded. Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting and Li Bibo, Mia Li and Shi Da contributed research.
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