February 27, 2012
There are three roads leading into Wukan, a fishing village of about 13,000 people on the southeast coast of China (see map, pp. 14-15). For two weeks in December, the people of Wukan blocked all three entrances, defying the police to enter. Villagers dug moats and built roadblocks from downed trees and broken bottles. Grandmothers and grandfathers took shifts during the night to stand guard.
"We will defend our farmland to the death!" a handmade banner proclaimed.
The people of Wukan had had enough. Corrupt local Communist Party officials, they said, had been selling their farmland to real estate developers. When the villagers protested in the streets, police attacked them. Four town leaders were arrested. Then one of the village spokesmen, Xue Jinbo (shway jin-bow), died in police custody--and Wukan erupted.
"They're too cruel for words," said a Wukan teen who was afraid to give her name. "[Xue's] body hasn't been returned. We want to give him a proper burial, and we want them to give us back our land."
After police set up their own barricades outside of town, Wukan was under siege. Worried about their food supply, villagers stacked bags of rice in an empty government building. Schools were nearly empty as students participated in rallies every afternoon.
No one knew what would happen next, or if the government would again resort to violence. As international reporters arrived on the scene of "Occupy Wukan," the rest of the world wondered too.
Zhan, 15, is careful when handling a 1953 deed to the land that his great-grandparents owned in Wukan. Since the days of China's Communist Revolution, the validity of such deeds has been questioned.
In 1949, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, won China's civil war and took control of the country. Under Communism, private ownership of property and businesses was outlawed. By the time Mao died in 1976, the policies of his totalitarian rule had left China's economy in ruins.
Mao's successors knew that they had to switch course. They opened the country to foreign investment and trade, and allowed private ownership of businesses. Companies from the U.S. and other countries rushed to take advantage of China's large, low-paid workforce. Goods manufactured in China began to flood store shelves around the world. A large percentage of clothes, electronics, and toys sold at Walmart today comes from China.
China's "economic miracle" has allowed millions of Chinese to escape hunger and poverty. Many have entered the middle class. Today, China has the world's second-largest economy after that of the U.S. Experts say that it may move into first place by 2016.
This presents a major challenge for the U.S., which has already lost millions of manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. Now Americans worry that China's new generation of well-educated young people will attract more of the high-tech and engineering jobs that have remained in the U.S.--so far.
The economic miracle also has a dark side for China. As land has skyrocketed in value, local Communist Party officials have sold much of it off to developers of hotels, large homes, and factories. Some have become very rich from these "land grabs."
Meanwhile, millions of Chinese have lost their livelihoods and even their homes. "My parents grow peanuts and rice on the land that was sold to developers," said Wukan villager Hong Xiaojie (hawng shaow-jay), 13. "If we don't have land, we can't make a living."
The Chinese people have found that "progress" has other costs. "All around us used to be village farmland," said Zhan. Now factories dot the land, their smokestacks belching, leaving an acrid smell in the air and who-knows-what in the water. It's a complaint heard across China: Environmental laws are on the books but not enforced.
A "China Spring"?
A new spirit of unrest has led to the spread of what the Chinese call "mass incidents"--their version of an Arab Spring. In recent years, roughly 70,000 protests have occurred annually across China-most of them over land grabs like those in Wukan.
"This is happening all over the country," said Liu Yawei (lee-yoo yah-way), director of the China Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Even after its economic reforms, China is still strictly controlled by the Communist Party. Protests are often put down violently by police, and advocates of human rights can spend years in prison for challenging the government. According to Amnesty International, an estimated 500,000 Chinese are being detained without trial.
Censorship is everywhere. China's authoritarian government has a vast system of Internet security, nicknamed the "Great Firewall," which employs tens of thousands of censors. News organizations, routinely silenced, were banned from covering the unrest in Wukan.
"The government wanted to crush [the protests] in the beginning," Liu said. "But villagers held firm and did not back down. It's rare for this kind of process to be successful."
Yet amazingly, it was. In late December, Communist Party officials from the province of Guangdong promised to investigate the land deals. The local officials who made the deals were dismissed. This month, the people of Wukan were even allowed--for the first time--to begin the process of electing their own leaders.
Why did the authorities back down? Some observers credit video of the protests taken by a villager, which spread on social media and attracted international attention. In the end, the government did not want to be seen by the world beating its own people.
At last, the crisis seemed to be over. The town took down protest signs and replaced them with red banners saying, "Welcome! We support the Communist Party."
The issues that led to Wukan's revolt are still unsettled. Officials have agreed to return only about one fourth of Wukan's land. They also won't release Xue Jinbo's body unless his family signs documents saying that he died of natural causes. Xue's family has refused.
Still, as students got ready to return to school, many people in Wukan, even the young, seemed to feel hopeful. "I haven't been in class for two weeks, but I've learned a lot," one middle school student who didn't want to be named told JS. "Now I know what it means to rally, and what civil rights are."
CHINA: FAST FACTS
AREA: 3,696,100 sq mi (U.S.: 3,717,796 sq mi)
POPULATION: 1.3 billion (U.S.: 312 million)
PER CAPITA GOP: 201Z-$7,600; 2000: $3,600 (U.S.: 2012: $36,200; 2000: $37,600)
LANGUAGES: Mandarin is native to two thirds of Chinese; other Chinese dialects include Cantonese. Ethnic languages are also spoken.
LITERACY: males, 96%; females, 89% (U.S.: 99/99)
LIFE EXPECTANCY: males, 72 years; females, 77 years [U.S.: 75/80)
Words to Know
* civil rights (nj: rights built upon an agreement between individuals and their government
* deed (n): a legal document proving ownership of property
* human rights (n): basic rights and freedoms to which ail people are entitled
* totalitarian (adj): related to dictatorial control
1949 Led by Mao Zedong, the Communists win China's civil war. The U.S. had backed the losing Nationalists, who set up a rival government on the island of Taiwan.
1950-1953 During the Korean War, China supports Communist North Korea against South Korea and its main ally, the U.S.
1972 Richard M. Nixon (right) becomes the first U.S. President to visit Communist China, helping to end decades of hostility between the countries.
1989 Tens of thousands of students demand democratic reforms in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China's capital. The U.S. supports the protesters, angering China's leaders.
1970s-2000s Free-market reforms lead to an economic boom in China. But concerns arise over the impact of Chinese exports on the U.S. economy.
2012 President Obama at the Great Wall of China on a visit to the country last year. China has become an issue in this year's U.S. presidential campaign.
Think About It
1. How did China's "economic miracle" contribute to the standoff in Wukan?
2. What lessons do you think the middle school student learned from the protests?
BY APRIL RABKIN IN WUKAN, CHINA