Guangdong protests could alter China’s leadership shuffle

An uprising over land seizures in a fishing hamlet in southern Guangdong province has been defused, but Chinese analysts and others are watching to see whether the unrest could have a wider effect, perhaps on the future of a provincial chief who had been seen as a rising star in the Communist Party.

Wang Yang, the provincial party leader since 2007, has been seen as one of the country’s leading economic reformers, presiding over one of China’s most affluent, vibrant provinces that was the first to benefit from the liberalization policies begun in 1979. Wang is considered a top candidate for one of the seven slots opening in 2012 on the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.

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Property protests have been erupting in China. Unhappy people were picketing outside a developer's office in Shanghai Friday, while a blockaded village mourned the death of a local man who'd been leading a fight against land seizure. (Dec. 16)

Property protests have been erupting in China. Unhappy people were picketing outside a developer's office in Shanghai Friday, while a blockaded village mourned the death of a local man who'd been leading a fight against land seizure. (Dec. 16)

Wang also made significant concessions to end the two-week-long uprising in Wukan village, including an agreement that freezes the disputed land deals, releases jailed villagers from custody and reportedly sacks some local officials.

The uprising in Wukan, along with recent labor strikes and a protest in a coastal town called Haimen, is seen by some as a challenge to the Guangdong model at a time when Bo Xilai, the party chief in Chongqing and a rival to Wang, has been critical of the “liberal approach.”

For months, Wang and Bo have been engaged in a rare public debate over whose methods and models are best for China. With its atmosphere of relative openness, including the country’s first publicly available provincial budget, Guangdong has been hailed by some as a template for others.

For his part, Bo has championed an approach that emphasizes efforts to reverse income inequality. “Some people in China have indeed become rich first, so we must seek the realization of common prosperity,” Bo was quoted as saying in July. A week later, Wang said in Guangdong that “division of the cake is not a priority right now. The priority is to make the cake bigger.”

Of the nine current standing committee members, only Vice President Xi Jinping and Deputy Premier Li Keqiang are expected to retain their seats, with Xi becoming party general secretary and later president of China, while all the other top positions remain at least publicly still unsettled. Along with Wang, Bo is seen as a serious candidate for one of the seven remaining positions.

An unusual public rivalry

The rivalry has spilled into other areas. Wang had previously served as party chief in Chongqing, and when Bo took over the job, he immediately launched a crackdown on organized crime and the mafia, or triad gangs, which some analysts took as a slap at his predecessor.

Also, although Wang has experimented with allowing a relatively open news media and reforms, Bo has shifted to a “new left” stance, encouraging a “Red Culture” campaign that includes the singing of Communist “red songs” and operas, launching a “Red Twitter” microblogging site to promote Mao-era slogans, and ordering Chongqing’s television stations to broadcast patriotically themed programs. Wang replied by saying people’s’ everyday problems could not be solved through political campaigns.

The unusual public rivalry was apparently so intense that Wang and Bo met in Beijing on Dec. 11 for an unusual display of unity and to sign a “cooperation agreement” between their two provinces. Some analysts speculated that the open show of friendliness may have been orchestrated by senior-level Beijing leaders to end the sniping ahead of the 2012 leadership changes.

“This was really getting ugly,” said Cheng Li, an analyst of the Chinese leadership with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Their policy differences and ideological differences had come into the public domain. The Communist Party was really on the verge of a split between the so-called Chongqing model and the so-called Guangdong model.”

Reformists vs. ‘princelings’

Other differences exist between Wang and Bo, representing two of the competing power poles in the ruling party. Bo, the son of the late former vice premier Bo Yibo, belongs to the group known as the “princelings,” the children of senior party officials from the Chinese Communist Party’s founding era, who are seen as having inherited their rank and privileges.

Wang, by contrast, came from a more modest background and joined the party when working in a food-processing plant. Wang worked his way up through the Communist Youth League, making him a member of the “tuanpai” faction.

The two are also believed to have different patrons. Wang is believed to be backed by Chinese President Hu Jintao, himself a former Communist Youth Leaguer, who visited Guangdong three times since Wang became party chief. Bo recently received public backing from Xi — a fellow princeling — who visited Chongqing for a two-day tour in December 2010, where he heaped praise on Bo for his accomplishments, including the red campaign and the war against the triads.

Analysts and others said the current unrest in Guangdong, if handled properly, might give a boost to Wang and other reformist members of the party’s ruling clique ahead of the leadership changes. But if the unrest worsens or spreads, the reformers could find themselves challenged.

“Insofar as you think Wang Yang is a reformer, these people have a shrinking base from which to start,” said Dean Cheng, a China analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If Wang disappears from the scene or is rebutted, this allows [Bo] to step into the resulting space.”

Hu Deping, eldest son of the late reformist general secretary Hu Yaobang, said the problem of farmers’ land rights in this rapidly urbanizing country was “one of the most important issues” facing China now, and he said the problem was more pronounced in Guangdong, which began the reform process earliest.

“If the Wukan incident is solved well, it will definitely have a positive impact on the overall reforms,” said Hu, a senior party official who recently wrote a book about his father’s reform efforts in the 1980s.

Staff researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.

 
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