Open Social Unrest in China
In the letter from our 2011 Annual Report, we briefly discussed the past occurrences — and potential current risk — of social unrest in China. This article highlights a current case study of Chinese villagers reacting strongly to ongoing mistreatment by the local government (instigated by an alleged incidence of torture and murder). Beyond the issues that general unrest creates, we found two other dynamics particularly noteworthy: (1) the natural tension between the national Communist Party and the local governments related to the treatment of citizens, and (2) the impact that a downturn in real estate values, and therefore new land sales, might have on the budgets and spending power of the local governments.
A fishing village of about 20,000 people in southern China is in open revolt against the local government a day after it announced the death in police custody of a villager who had led protests over an alleged land grab, according to residents. Villagers say the man was murdered, but police say he died of a heart attack. The villagers have forced local officials and police to flee Wukan in the southern province of Guangdong — China’s export powerhouse — and have erected barricades to prevent them from re-entering, according to residents.
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The siege in the prosperous [Guangdong] province is one of the most serious recent examples of mass unrest in China, much of it due to local officials misappropriating farmland and selling it to property developers at an enormous profit that farmers never see.
Illegal land seizures — often for golf courses, luxury villas and hotels — are seen by many Chinese and foreign experts as the single biggest threat to the Communist Party as it struggles to maintain legitimacy in a society that is becoming increasingly demanding and well-informed, thanks in large measure to the Internet, even as income disparities widen.
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But the central government’s attempts to curb such abuses, and to draft new legislation that would protect against land grabs and give farmers a market rate for their land, have met fierce resistance from local authorities who rely on land sales to maintain growth, service debt and top up their budgets.
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“This kind of dispute is very widespread,” said Eva Pils, an associate professor of law specializing in land disputes in China at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Because people are better connected and better informed, you can sense that there is more radical opposition to what’s happening to them,” she said. “It’s also easier for this kind of protest to spread — and far harder to isolate because information can still travel.”