Imagine China without the Communist Party. The people of one Chinese fishing village have made that a reality.
Earlier this week, mobs of angry villagers chased communist officials and police out of Wukan, a coastal town of 20,000 in southeastern China. A dispute had been simmering for months with party bosses after a series of land seizures: Farms were being taken and handed over to developers for tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, with none of the proceeds going to the original occupants. Anti-government demonstrations in September were put down with excessive force, but the party agreed to mount an investigation and negotiate with representatives chosen by village residents.
One of the representatives was a butcher named Xue Jinbo. On Friday, he and four other citizens were abruptly taken into custody. On Monday, police reported that the 42-year-old man had died in jail of a heart attack. His family was allowed to view the body in the morgue, but authorities wouldn’t release the remains. A family member said there were signs that Xue had been tortured.
Xue’s death was the catalyst for a small-scale revolt. Mobs seized control of government offices and police stations. Party officials fled, and 1,000 riot police, armed with water cannons and tear gas, attempted to take back the town. The insurgents held fast behind makeshift barricades, and the authorities retreated. Wukan is under a state of siege, its roads blocked, its fishing fleet blockaded and communication lines cut. The people have formed a makeshift government and are for the moment enjoying their first taste of self-rule since before the communist revolution of 1949.
It’s likely to be a short-lived experiment. Beijing won’t tolerate open dissent. China has banned any mention of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement or even democracy on its Internet servers. A man named Wang set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square in October, and the event was hushed up by authorities for more than a month. Had a Western journalist not coincidentally been on the scene, it might never have been known. Wang apparently was emulating Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation after humiliation by the authorities inspired the uprisings that became the Arab Spring. The response to Xue’s demise in Wukan shows just how powerful the focused resentment of the oppressed can be. It’s a scene that could be repeated in towns and villages across the mainland, as long-suffering masses reclaim their rights from the selfish communist oligarchy.
There’s little doubt how this episode will end. The success of the people of Wukan will be their undoing. There are reports of conciliatory gestures from the government, but Beijing ultimatley won’t accept this challenge to party power. When the authorities return, it will be with armored vehicles and machine guns, not water hoses and pepper spray. The fact that news of the rebellion has spread to the outside world will make swift action by the regime inevitable. The quixotic counterrevolutionaries of Wukan will join the martyrs of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, and for the rest of the world, it will be business as usual with the butchers in Beijing.