Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The Wukan Uprising and Chinese State-Society Relations: Toward "Shadow Civil Society"?+

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The Wukan Uprising and Chinese State-Society Relations: Toward "Shadow Civil Society"?+

Article excerpt


As many as 180,000 popular protests may take place each year across the People's Republic of China. In September 2011 one such protest - in Wukan village of Guangdong Province - became a global media event. The purpose of this article is to address social protest mobilization in the Chinese countryside and emerging civil society through the prism and worms-eye view of the Wukan incident. Two questions are posed. First, was the Wukan incident in any way special? Second, does collective action and evolving state-society relations as witnessed in Wukan herald a more democratic future for China? The many arguments about Wukan being a "China in miniature" and statements on its implications for state-society tensions and an emergent rights-seeking civil society clearly warrant a deeper investigation of the actors and social phenomena involved, such as a clan networks and employment of new media strategies. This article argues that these phenomena indicates how a "shadow civil society" takes shape beyond the perimeters of officialdom, yet temporarily accepts the confines and mechanisms of the formal political system.

Keywords: China, civil society, popular protest, Wukan, clans, media strategy, village elections

JEL classification: H11, H12, P26, Z18

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

1. Introduction

In 2011 the world witnessed the reverberations of the Arab Spring through North Africa to Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and the subsequent ousting of incumbent political leaders Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from their seats of power in Tunisia and Egypt. As the Jasmine democratic revolutions rippled through the region of the Middle East, projections about its potential journey to the Far East circulated in Western mass media. Eventually this particular wave of democratic protest did not reach authoritarian China with force. Yet it is a fact that every year as many as 180,000 popular protests take place across the People's Republic of China (PRC). At the end of 2011 one of these local and mostly isolated conflicts came to worldwide attention. A protest that had started in September in the tiny fishing village of Wukan, Guangdong Province, peaked in December and a peaceful outcome was by no means certain. The street protests were prompted by a drawn-out struggle that had been brewing for years regarding a conflict over compensation for collectively used land that had been sold to commercial developers. The dispute then escalated on December 11 when the Party Secretary who had ruled Wukan for 40 years were, Ben-Ali-like, thrown out by the approximately 10,000 villagers. Locals erected barricades at the inroads, and with their families and protest banners occupied the small public square. During the standoffthat followed, with the Communist Party leaders and police squadrons of the nearby city of Lufeng on one side and the Wukan villagers on the other, many foreign reporters sneaked into the village as the People's Armed Police were awaiting their orders across the barricades.

In line with the prevalent view of popular rebellions against corrupt autocracy in the Middle East, several Western press reports portrayed the Wukan incident as an "uprising", the villagers as anti-state "rebels" and the ad hoc leadership after the ousting of the sitting Village Committee as a "rebelliously self-governing body".1 During the peak of state-society tension, some Chinese observers also considered the event a "turning point" for how government-society disputes over land could and would be handled in future.2 The uniqueness of Wukan was said to derive from the careful and prudent handling of the incident by the provincial government.3 That was the basis for the argument of the Chinese sociologist Sun Liping, that Wukan signifies a new model for resolving social contradictions and contention in rural China, i.e. "realizing people's interests while maintaining social stability".4 After a resolution to the crisis was found, i. …

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