The ongoing standoff between Chinese police and the defiant residents of Wukan, a 20,000-person village about 200 kilometers northeast of Hong Kong, is nothing short of extraordinary. Reports of the arrival of a "China Spring" are premature, but the comparison is closer than anyone would have predicted before last week. Long after authorities from Beijing re-establish control, Wukan's achievement will affect China's internal security policy, succession dynamics in the run-up to the 2012 leadership handover, and even China's foreign policy.
Here is what seems to have happened: Since the 1990s, Wukan authorities have sold off the town's land to developers and enriched themselves with the proceeds. Villagers, who rely on fishing for their livelihood, tolerated the loss of property until the recent uptick in inflation made food more expensive and land more dear. In September, locals learned of the sale of another large plot, including a grave site, when developers began construction. (Popular estimates of the deal's value exceed $150 million; divided among residents, this would amount to a payout of about four times the average annual income.) Villagers rioted, and Wukan's Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary, its leader for the last three decades, fled. The uprising was quelled when remaining local officials authorized the villagers to select 13 representatives for negotiations. Fast forward to last Friday. Unmarked (read: government) vans arrived in Wukan, and the men who jumped out arrested five of the 13 representatives, at least one of whom died in captivity. On Sunday, villagers moved fallen trees across a highway to block the entrance of an approaching 1,000-man riot squad. After unleashing tear gas and water cannons, the squad retreated, erecting a steel barrier around the town. Now all of the local party officials have fled, and with security forces outside Wukan preventing the flow of food and water into the town, the standoff continues.
Villagers' appeals to the central party have expanded from restitution and punishment of corrupt officials to compensation for police brutality. Lead protester Lin Zulian, an army veteran, is rumored to have ties in Beijing, and has been quoted as holding out hope that authorities there will intercede to resolve the situation. Reporters from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, have now entered the village. While Wukan residents with access to the Chinese microblogging website Weibo were able to communicate with the outside world through last Thursday, a complete blackout has been implemented in advance of Xinhua's coverage, paving the way for an authorized storyline to emerge. Watch for the central party to make gestures to appease the protesters, imprisoning the most egregiously corrupt local officials and providing some compensation for seized land. This will succeed in quieting down Wukan, but history is likely to remember the impact of what happened there on Chinese domestic security practices, jockeying for leadership positions, and even foreign affairs.
The consequences: Those responsible for maintaining social stability in China will now have to invest even more in local informants to stay abreast of nascent unrest. Already, estimates based on leaks from provincial security bureaus put the number of domestic spies in China at about 39 million, or three percent of the population. (By comparison, in East Germany under the Stasi, informants made up 2.5 percent of the population.) The Wukan precedent is also likely to inspire efforts to make sure that a town cannot survive for long without access to external supplies. Food, water, and medicine stocks in localities could now be regulated.
Even more troubling for the central government, the grievances of Wukan-ites are representative of a broader problem in China. CCP members readily confess that corruption is rampant. According to the former China bureau chief of the Financial Times, a local official who pays 300,000 yuan for a position can expect to pull in five million within a couple years of occupying his or her post. Most of this will be outside the salary attached to the position, make no mistake. Bribes, kickbacks, and the seizure of land for real estate development deals are part of a predatory system whose victims are ordinary Chinese people. It is the general population that suffers when shoddy materials are used in the construction of schools and roads, or even airports, in the case of the new terminal outside Beijing that recently collapsed. The general population is left homeless when they are evicted without compensation, or with payment insufficient to cover the cost of another residence.
These issues are at the forefront of internal party debates on future economic and social policy in the run-up to next year's leadership transition. A rivalry between spokesmen for different approaches has been much reported. The populist, Mao-invoking leader of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who launched a very public anti-corruption campaign, is said to be vying with Wang Yang, the leader of Guangdong province where Wukan is located, for a seat on the Politburo standing committee.
Whether or not reports of lead protester Lin Zulian's ties in Beijing are accurate, the Wukan incident is likely to foment divisions among party elites, as factions argue over who was responsible and how the situation should have been handled. The fact that news of the uprising reached both domestic and foreign audiences despite the suppression efforts of China's propaganda authorities indicates the limits of the country's vast censorship apparatus. Dissension within its ranks may even have played a role.
Finally, amidst the climate of debate and recrimination in Beijing, some will highlight the coincidence of the Wukan uprising with the "Occupy" movement in the United States. Despite the fact that Wukan residents clearly acted on their own initiative, in response to local grievances, their achievement is likely to heighten the already acute sensitivity of China's political leaders to evidence of foreign efforts to sow instability in the country. Rather than scapegoat Washington, however, China's leaders would do well to remember that what happened in Wukan was their taste of the Arab Spring, not evidence of external meddling in China's affairs.
Jacqueline N. Deal is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and president of the Long Term Strategy Group, a defense research firm.