Rural protests make up a large part of overall social unrest in China. But such protests had not received prominent international attention until the siege of Wukan, a village of 12,000 in Guangdong province, late last year.
Just like the strikes in Honda plants in 2010, Wukan brought to light the deep-seated grievances of villagers in a dramatic way. The revolt featured the eviction of party officials and the police, the self-management of the village by villagers, and the stand-off against armed police in a siege for more than a week.
The Wukan protest was triggered by the local government's land expropriation without adequate compensation to the affected villagers. It was escalated by the death of a protest leader in police custody.
The villagers showed remarkable courage in occupying their own village against predictable state repression.
But with solidarity protests in nearby villages and intense local and international media coverage, the provincial government finally conceded under pressure. It withdrew the armed police and agreed to a democratic village election.
There is little doubt that China's rural population ― which was a majority until last year ― is a significant social force. Several Chinese dynasties were brought down by peasant rebellions.
The support of the peasantry is often crucial for successful revolutions.
In the first part of the 20th century, the Chinese Nationalist Party based in urban centres was ultimately defeated by the Chinese Communist Party. From the 1930s onwards, the CCP established “soviets” in China’s hinterland, gaining popular support among the peasantry by carrying out land reforms.
After the Chinese revolution in 1949, the CCP overthrew the landlord class that had exploited the rural population for centuries. This was one of the most profound changes in Chinese society in the 20th century.
However, the ensuing rapid urban industrialisation under Mao was based on extracting the surplus in the countryside, made possible by collectivising agriculture.
Urban living standards were raised continuously throughout the Maoist period, but lagged behind in the countryside, despite improved health care and education.
The rigid separation between rural and urban population instituted under Mao meant most of the rural population could not move freely. This would have a big impact in the reform period.
The social and economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping began with decollectivisation and its replacement by the household responsibility system. This was essentially a return to individual farming that created a large pool of surplus labour.
The urban-centered development, which resulted in income disparity between rural and urban populations, pulled the rural surplus labour to the factories in industrial zones and building sites in the urban centers.
The wages for rural migrants are always low by urban standards but are nevertheless much higher than previous rural income.
But rural migrants face institutional discrimination in the form of the infamous household registration system, and social discrimination by the urban population who often consider the peasants to be uneducated and uncivilised, despite their significant contribution to urban growth.
Migrating to the cities was particularly attractive to young women in the countryside. These migrants were considered by employers to be submissive and docile, and thus easy to discipline and dismiss.
They had almost no social insurance, and the cost of child-raising was partly borne by families back in the countryside that ultimately helped increase profits.
More recently, the countryside has acted as a safety valve to absorb urban unemployment. Early in the financial crisis, more than 20 million migrant workers became unemployed and temporarily went back to their rural homes before they could find work again in the cities.
Meanwhile, because of the huge outflow of young men and women from the countryside, in many cases only young children and older people remained in the villages. And “stay-behind” children ― children left behind in the village without proper parental care ― were a serious social concern.
Serious tensions exist in rural China, and chief among them is the land issue. Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences indicates that land expropriation has been the most volatile issue in the countryside.
To boost local economies, which is crucial for the political advancement of officials, and to increase revenue through land sales, local governments have sold land for redevelopment. In the process, they often pocket large bribes.
Other grievances include rampant corruption, excessive local taxation and the use of violence (gradually abolished since 2004) to collect taxes, village election fraud, pollution of farmland and drinking water and illegal mining.
The rural population have used petitions and litigation to defend their rights and interests, but usually without success. When these channels are exhausted, villagers resort to disruptive measures such as blocking public transportation, besieging government compounds and holding sit-ins in government offices.
Village elections since the late 1990s have drawn much interest and are hoped to be the first step toward broader democratisation.
But as well as electoral fraud, the power of local elected villagers’ committees is highly constrained and subordinate to the appointed party secretary.
Recognising the problems, the Chinese government under Hu Jintao initiated a campaign to build a “new socialist countryside” to develop the poor rural areas and improve social service delivery. However, due to bureaucratic meddling, it is often those already well-off villages that benefit most from government programs.
However, the issue of expropriation of land ― which is at the heart of Wukan and many similar rural rebellions ― has little prospect of being resolved.
Wukan villagers won an important victory, but it remains to be seen whether land sales can be reversed. Land sales are happening across China in a systemic fashion with tacit central government support.
One thing is certain: many people in the countryside have been emboldened by the struggle in Wukan.
Just like the Honda strikes, the significance of the Wukan struggle lies not in its immediate results but in the fact it is an expression of general social rebellion against a system that ruthlessly exploits rural and urban people alike.