When Hong Kong students launched their “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014, the comforting narrative of youngsters striving for democracy combined with the aesthetic of tents beneath the skyscrapers captivated the world’s media.
The scene in gritty Tianmu, a village outside the northern industrial city of Tianjin, couldn’t be more different to glamorous Hong Kong – nor could it be more typical of the widespread protests taking place on the Chinese mainland.
Without much fanfare or media attention, Tianmu’s residents have been protesting for almost as long as their counterparts did in Hong Kong. Instead of universal suffrage, the villagers have more mundane concerns on their minds: a fair price for their land. And in Tianmu, as in so many villages and towns throughout China, getting a fair price from local officials can be no less arduous than getting the central Chinese Communist Party to agree to free and fair elections.
Up in arms
For more than 70 days, several hundred people (and sometimes a few thousand) gathered outside government offices to demand the removal of the local party secretary, Mu Xiangyou, who they accuse of illegally selling off their land and pocketing the profits. The protests have only just begun to taper off.
Reports said that a public security official ordered the village committee to “find a solution”, but protesters have promised to return to the streets if their demands are not met.
Land disputes between residents and local officials are one of the main causes of civil unrest in China. Most incidents are directly related to the issue of unpaid or unfair compensation for land, since house-building and industrial development is a major source of income for local governments. Officials are known to collude with developers to sell land at prices well below market value; they sometimes employ thugs or cut utilities to force out people who are reluctant to move.
Corruption of this kind is common in China, where graft and clientalism are woven into the social and political fabric. Incidents in places such as Tianmu therefore tend to attract little attention and, as long as the protests don’t suddenly blow up, it is unlikely that Mu and his associates will be investigated or punished.
But Tianmu’s protesters are acting up at a sensitive time, just as elite party leaders appear near-obsessed with purging corruption among their unruly agents – and their protest reflects a dangerous situation for the central government.
Xi Jinping’s Beijing has responded to the outbreak of land protests with a number of measures. Its latest law clarifies citizens’ rights to sue the government for violating land agreements and compensation. State media say the law is aimed at promoting officials’ awareness of the “rule of law”, the rhetoric currently in vogue in Beijing.
But the new law is unlikely to change the status quo. The odds will remain stacked in favour of officials and their partners in development.
In theory, land acquisitions are restricted to projects that are in the public’s best interest – but in practice it is up to local officials to determine what the public’s best interests are. The obvious potential for conflicts of interest explains why protests over land are springing up all over the country. Compared to Tianmu, most of these incidents have been small and short-lived – but the problem isn’t going away.
Like others before them, the residents of Tianmu are using the party’s own anti-corruption language to voice their grievances. Intentionally or not, this is perhaps the best tactic in the current political climate. The legal culpability of local officials can be hard to determine because Chinese land law is so ambiguous, but even the most egregious misdeeds seldom end up in court.
The protesters’ best bet for success is to make themselves heard as widely as possible – increasing their numbers as much as possible and trying to grab the attention of China’s online community.
But China’s online public sphere is under more pressure than ever since the Xi administration decided to tighten its grip on physical and online space. Xi’s war on online rumours and influencers has had precisely the intended chilling effect, largely defusing Weibo’s once-great capacity to stir public outrage.
Some commentators, for instance the prominent American scholar David Shambaugh, see Xi’s various clampdowns as a sure sign of weakness. A confident government, the argument goes, would not be bothered with cracking down on academic institutions, putting the screws on the already heavily controlled internet, or targeting activists, including those working in previously “safe” areas such as women’s rights.
But anxiety and insecurity at the top are nothing new. Worries about real and perceived threats have been a constant feature of the party throughout its existence. The entire political system is based on the party maintaining ultimate authority and, as such, it is constantly looking for challenges and jealously defending its power.
But just because the central leadership’s anxieties about corruption and its effects on governance and stability does not mean Tianmu’s protesters can expect to have their grievances heard.
The local government has reacted to the protest with insouciance. The protests have had a limited impact: numbers are still pretty small, there has been no violence, few detentions – and internet and media coverage outside China has been negligible, limited to a report by the Daily Telegraph’s China correspondent.
While a harsh state crackdown cannot be ruled out, it seems unlikely, given that the protesters are using the party’s own anti-corruption language to put forward their grievances. But that in itself should worry the central government deeply.
The whole affair shows just how far Xi’s government has to go in its banner anti-corruption crusade. The party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection investigated more than 55,000 officials for violations in 2014, including close to 4,000 lower-level officials for bribery, graft and embezzlement – and yet, despite a new law designed for exactly these circumstances, Tianmu’s party secretary seems unlikely to face the music for his alleged misdemeanours.
That speaks to a very deep problem with Chinese governance as a whole. The country’s inefficient and unjust system has not improved because implementing effective change is a higher-stakes game than the party is willing to play. The Chinese social contract is fraying: popular acquiescence in exchange for material improvement no longer makes sense in the face of sluggish growth and the social fall-out from decades of dizzyingly fast development.
The Chinese system needs to become more equitable and just to survive, but it can’t be changed without turfing out the same vested interests that keep things ticking over. The stakes could not be clearer: the party has to resolve this dilemma if it wants to stay in power.