Wukan and the “fourth danger”

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 this year was mostly self-congratulatory, a grocery list of everything the Party professes to have done right. But Hu did pause for a stern moment in which he enumerated what he called the “four dangers”: loss of vitality (精神懈怠), insufficient capacity (能力不足), alienation from the people (脱离群众) and rampant corruption (消极腐败). These internal challenges, said Hu, are now “more strenuous and pressing than at any point in the past.”

The third of these challenges, alienation from the public, can be glimpsed daily on China’s internet, as users fume over myriad injustices and the government’s often cruel and cockeyed way of dealing with them (like burying train cars within 24 hours of a major railway disaster). The credibility of China’s institutions is often questioned so routinely that leaders need only issue a denial of an accusation for internet users to be certain of its truth.

But it’s number four on Hu Jintao’s list, corruption, that arguably presents the most immediate threat to the Party’s standing, and to social and political stability in China. Corruption, particularly at the local level — but surely at every level — is behind most of the social ills and animosities that boil over daily in China into “sudden-breaking incidents” officials do their utmost to crisis-manage.

The emphasis on “channeling public opinion” so prevalent in media policy these last few years — what we have at CMP termed “Control 2.0″ — essentially comes down to finding more effective ways of spinning these public opinion crises, managing dangerous stories in the era of real-time interactive information.

But as Zhu Huaxin (祝华新) of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center wrote recently, these public opinion crises are backgrounded by very real “social sicknesses” and “resolving real [underlying] issues is the first order of business, while channeling public opinion on the internet (网上舆论引导) must be secondary.”

In recent weeks, intensifying in recent days, we have another clear example of just how volatile the situation can be in local areas across the country, where citizen’s interests are often threatened by corrupt or unresponsive local leaders not subjected to real checks on their power. And this example also shows us how leaders are trying to grapple with the fallout from this corruption, though not unfortunately the root causes.

The story is about how thousands of residents in Wukan village outside the city of Shanwei in Guangdong province have organized protests against local officials they allege sold off village land in a dirty development deal.

Here is a visual illustration of corruption as the core originating grievance, photos from Wukan shared on social media in which the banner at the top reads: “Does the land belong to corrupt officials?”

The situation escalated over the weekend as villagers learned that Xue Jinbo (薛锦波), a village representative, had died while in police custody. Police said Xue’s death was due to a heart attack, but family members insist he was badly beaten.

For the fuller story, we refer you to Malcolm Moore’s reporting at The Telegraph [Today's story is here]. But this photo by Moore gives you a good sense of what’s happening in Wukan.

So we have a case here of alleged official corruption — the “fourth danger,” if you will — that has escalated into a crisis situation over (possibly) another grave issue of injustice as leaders in Guangdong have applied heavy-fisted tactics to deal with it. So far, the government response has been to close Wukan off both in terms of security (“stability preservation”) and propaganda policy (“public opinion channeling”).

Finally late yesterday, just minutes before midnight and after a uniform blackout in Chinese media through the day, we had two news stories on Wukan from China News Service, China’s number-two official newswire. The first reported that Shanwei city authorities revealed at a press conference on the Wukan incident (乌坎事件) yesterday that “preliminary investigations have ruled out external force as the cause of death” in Xue’s case. The news story also said that the city’s medical expert shared photos of Xue’s body during the press conference.

The second China News Service report, also based on the press conference, said that “various village officials” from Wukan had been detained for discipline violations.

Curiously, though, there seems to be no coverage of the press conference from other media. That suggests that these stories can be taken as an illustration of “public opinion channeling” tactics at work. The authorities, in other words, are selectively releasing partial information from an official perspective in an attempt to frame and re-direct public attention. Message 1: Xue Jinbo was not killed by police, an assertion that removes the immediate reason for escalated tensions in Wukan. Message 2: local Wukan leaders have been detained for suspected discipline problems, an action that (leaders undoubtedly hope) will remove the initial underlying cause of tensions, alleged dirty land deals.

A search in Baidu News for “Wukan incident” comes up with a number of other news reports, like this one, making use of the China News Service release. But other suggested links for coverage after December 9 are not available, most notably a report on 21cn.com provocatively headlined “Wukan: The Awakening of a Village” (乌坎:一个村庄的觉醒), which now returns only a “page cannot be found” message:

Stranger still, another link on the Baidu News search results is an article posted yesterday at Phoenix Online with the headline: “Four Villagers from Wukan in Guangdong’s Lufeng City are Locked Up in Three Locations, Allowed to Meet with Relatives” ( 广东陆丰乌坎4村民被分3处关押 获准与亲人见面). The video embedded with the Phoenix Online article says it all, I think, and I encourage readers to look at it carefully. Nanfang Daily, the official mouthpiece of Guangdong Party leaders, is given as the source of the video.

In the video, a policeman brings a prisoner (we are to suppose he is one of the Wukan villagers detained) outside to where several three chairs sit. As the prisoner walks in wearing his orange vest, two people (we are to suppose these are two of the prisoner’s relatives) sit in two of the chairs. The time on the video says, “December 13, 2011, 15:00.” There is a brief, awkward embrace of sorts. Then, before anything meaningful whatsoever is spoken, the video cuts to a scene in which two different people (again, we are to suppose these are relatives of the prisoner) walk very casually toward the two empty chairs across from the prisoner, who is already seated. There is a cut once again, and then the two women are already seated. One says, “So, have they beaten you at all?” To which the prisoner responds, “No, they haven’t beaten me.” Then comes the kicker from the prisoner’s relative: “Thanks to the government!”

The time on the video still reads: “December 13, 2011, 15:00.”

As a “channeling” mechanism, of course, this video establishes a third assertion, that the village leaders detained in the Wukan incident have not been mistreated by the authorities.

Images were also posted on Chinese social media yesterday, but control of this story has been very robust. When I posted a Chinese-language summary of Moore’s story and the above photo to Sina Weibo yesterday morning, it was quarantined in under a minute. That is to say, the post was not deleted, but it was hidden from all Sina Weibo users but myself — without any notice for Sina. If I hadn’t been on my toes and ready to watch the post with the help of colleagues I might have assumed simply that no-one was interested in commenting or re-posting the item.

All searches for “Wukan” and “Shanwei” on Sina Weibo yield messages that read: “According to relevant laws and regulations, search results for ‘Wukan’ can not be shown.” Estimates put Shanwei’s population at around 700,000 — so imagine a major internet platform in the United States blocking searches for “Detroit.”

Clearly Wukan is an object lesson in the dangers of runaway corruption at the local level in China. But it is also, unfortunately, shaping up as a test case in how the government is experimenting with new strategies to shape news coverage on sensitive incidents and issues.

Let’s keep watching.

———-

UPDATE:
(For the benefit of commenter Itlee and all, we provide three screenshots of Sina Weibo searches conducted at 5:38pm Hong Kong, December 15, 2011]

25 Comments to “Wukan and the “fourth danger””

  1. izabella says:

    is it a plead for democracy or just an economical dispute that lost control? The chinese media, isn’t ignoring and actually respects protestors, here’s an example: http://thinkingchinese.com/the-guangdong-wukan-incident-has-been-revealed

  2. ltlee says:

    @Ryan
    The tragic of the commons:
    Opportunity cost. A total waste of limited resources.
    Human cost. Rumors may lead to irreversible actions .
    Cultural cost. Bad practices could drive out good practices.

  3. Christoph says:

    Thanks David for the timely updates.
    Since, apparently, the very same Shanwei City got away with the hushing up of the killing of at least 3 protesters in Dongzhou town almost exactly 6 years earlier in December 2005 (http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%9D%B1%E6%B4%B2%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6), I wonder if the city authorities have a special guardian at the very top or if the pendelum of media controls swung back to very repressive for good. After the 2005 incident the non-party media was never allowed to report but netizens were outraged. Soon Hu Jintao and particularly Wen Jiabao reacted and made protester-sympathizing noises and former Guangdong party secretary Zhang Dejian was openly criticized. It will be interesting to see how this episode turns out over the coming weeks. Continued silence from the highest leadership will be very revealing.

  4. Ryan says:

    @Itlee
    You are exactly correct! If a writer continually posts rumors, lies, and crazy rants, the readers will sooner or later be able to tune out this noise. So let the writers write freely, and let the readers read freely. The readers will ultimately realize if the boy is crying wolf. Just as you said, “People will say the darndest thing to the point not many people will pay attention it them.” So why bother censoring what they write?

  5. ltlee says:

    @Ryan
    I would say the internet weibo as is is more like a common than a market of ideas. People will say the darndest thing to the point not many people will pay attention it them.

  6. Ryan says:

    It would be easy to say the government is the bad guy and the villagers are the good guys in this scenario. But one must realize that these protesters and the officials are cut from the same peasant cloth, born and bred with the remnants of distrust left behind by 50 years of oppression. The protestors may be just as unreasonable and greedy as the corrupt officials.

    There is healthy growth, such as adolescence, and then there is cancerous growth, which is the type of economic growth that has occurred in China the last ten years. This malignancy has effectively created social “tumors”. These tumors are not cells growing out of control. These are tumors of distrust, anger, and greed. These are spreading throughout the country. One could remove these, but it will be an endless task unless the root of the problem is solved. One thing is for sure; in the end, the common Chinese will suffer, as they have throughout their culture’s history. This is the unavoidable tragedy of being Chinese.

  7. ltlee says:

    @Andao
    Split one into two.
    1. To the extent that one cannot really read minds, objective people without ulterior motives naturally will wait for the verdict of history rather than jumping into conclusion.
    2. Institutions and leaders also embody of values besides serving other daily functions. People wave flag of support because they accept and support the same values. Accepting the same values, of course, does not preclude the people from hating unacceptable behavior such as corruption. Nevertheless, the distinction is important.

  8. S. Barret Dolph says:

    In a war there are skirmishes on the outside and there is taking over the capital. Those corrupt officials in local towns continually destroy the trust in leaders. (And I would agree with Itlee in that it seems there is more trust in leaders here than in countries such as the US and Taiwan. But there also seems to much much lower expectations.)

    On the other side there are those who take the battle to the capital. They continue to hammer away at all the central tenets of Marx and Socialism. There is no perfect science of politics, there is no cunning in history a la Hegel and/or Marx, and all the thinking which Marx learned from is also continually slammed. Private Property is not theft despite his appreciation of Proudhon, the economy is not an apple as Ricardo said, Religion is not as bad as Feuerbach made it out to be and destroying it won’t bring a utopia.

    Whether corruption or continued attacks on all forms of Marxism, whether it be with Chinese Characteristics or National Socialism which hurts the current government more will be something we cannot foretell.

  9. Andao says:

    ltlee,

    It is well known that many villagers during the Great Leap Forward made the same pleas. If only Chairman Mao knew, they argued, the evil local leaders would change. Some of the time they geniunely believed that was true, but undoubtedly this was also a roundabout method for expressing dissent.

    Of course these people are waving flags and yelling long live the communist party! They think by doing so, their pleas will be taken more seriously. I don’t think it has anything to do with faith in the leadership. If they were asking for destruction of the CCP along with land reform, it would be so much easier for them to roll the tanks in and start throwing people in jail.

  10. faisal says:

    “many westerners like you see the CPC dominated government as evil and wish its downfall, the sooner the better.”

    That says it all, doesn’t it?

    I think ltlee’s ridiculous presumptions are grounded in insecurity, a driving force for nationalists of all stripes. The emotional wording is palpable. All countries have their faults, ltlee. Just because a foreigner points it out does not mean you need to quibble over minutiae to defend your pride. It makes you look small and narrow minded.

  11. RGL says:

    Brilliantly researched. I wouldn’t waste your time with folks like ltlee who focus obsessively on the imagined biases of foreign commentators, rather than the brazen prevarication of propaganda authorities.

  12. ltlee says:

    @David
    Actually, I had read about low “public trust” and more than once.
    Do you understand what “plural society” means? “Plural society” consists of two words, “plural” and “society.”. In short, a society is only plural to the degree that people can choose not to believe some institutions or some leaders. However, a society is only a society to the degree that all people also believe something or some leaders There will be no society if all people do not trust all leaders.
    More precise, your statement is “…leaders need only issue a denial of an accusation for internet users to be certain of its truth.” You are implying the Chinese people do not believe all leaders, local as well as central.
    I know, many westerners like you see the CPC dominated government as evil and wish its downfall, the sooner the better. Fine, but does the Wukan protest support your assertion that the Chinese people do not believe all leaders?

  13. David says:

    Itlee:

    Why don’t you begin by reading the copious research available from the Public Opinion Monitoring Center at People’s Daily Online? Here’s one:
    http://leaders.people.com.cn/GB/15616025.html

    Best,
    David

  14. Chris says:

    I live and teach at a university maybe 2 hours away from Wukan and no one here seems to know anything about what is happening there. I’ve made a few posts at my Qzone and my Weibo and included pictures. No one has responded to my Weibo message, which leads me to believe it has been “quarantined .”

  15. ltlee says:

    馬克思主義新聞觀
    1、要根据事实来描写事实,不能根据希望来描写事实。

    Mr. Bandurski wrote:
    “The credibility of China’s institutions is often questioned so routinely that leaders need only issue a denial of an accusation for internet users to be certain of its truth. ”
    How did he reach this conclusion? Was it the logical entailment of what president Hu had said on the four dangers. Certainly not. Was such conclusion supported by any statistics? Again, the answer is NO. As a matter of fact, China has high trust in government according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer. Does the protest itself not indicate such a conclusion? Not necessarily so.
    Chinese officials are not any kind of gods and never will be. They certainly cannot guarantee the sky is always blue and the grass is always green. Protests, as a mean of communication, are inevitable. And if the officials do not respond fast enough and/or respond the wrong way, the people, needless to say, would be angry. Nevertheless, one could not equate protest per se with no trust in authority. Let us see what did the people say. One of banner shown above reads “Party central, please save Wukan, please save the country.” From another report on the same protest, one resident told the reporter, “The whole village is distraught and enraged. We want the central government to come in and restore justice.” http://news.yahoo.com/china-villagers-defy-government-standoff-over-death-121419694.html
    Neither of above support the notion that Chinese institution and leaders are not trusted per Mr Bandursky’s suggestion.

  16. S. Barret Dolph says:

    The WuKan situation should be a good place for those who wish news to return to their Marxist roots. Even a cursory understanding of Marx could be used to show the plight of the workers when capitalists take their land and lively hood.

  17. shaun says:

    I would like to congratulate the author, as a native English speaker I found this piece well written and informative. A far better piece of writing than I find in the Standard newspaper. Well done!

  18. David says:

    Itlee:

    As clearly specified in the article, the search I conducted was on Sina Weibo. The results are well documented.

    Best,
    David

  19. ltlee says:

    @Andao
    May be both you and I should read more carefully on David’s statement:
    “Estimates put Shanwei’s population at around 700,000 — so imagine a major internet platform in the United States blocking searches for “Detroit.” ”
    I made the mistake of searching Baido rathan than Sina. (Too bad I don’t got paid for posting else I would be more careful.)
    Nevertheless David made a false claim concerning search for “Shanwei” being blocked by a major internet platform. FACT: Seach for “Shanwei” was not blocked. Not even blocked by Sina weibo. It returned 720 results.
    Sure, Search on Sina Weibo had yield no results. Other weibo do not appear to have the same problem. Baidu search showed the following weibo results
    2小时前 – 搜狐微博 – 评论
    废城农民:南方都市报:汕尾通报乌坎事件嫌疑人死因调查结果…
    4小时前 – 腾讯微博 – 评论
    汕尾妥善处置乌坎事件…
    Implication. It is likely that Sina’s decided to shut down the search for certain words for policy reasons. Not that such search was blocked externally. Conclusion: It is still unprofessional to make sweeping claim like “Estimates put Shanwei’s population at around 700,000 — so imagine a major internet platform in the United States blocking searches for “Detroit.” “

  20. Andao says:

    Confirmed I can’t search “Wukan, ” “Lufeng” or “Shanwei” on Weibo, I get the same message David gets.

    ltlee, I read your posts here with great interest, I think some of your points against David are very compelling. But there’s no need to lie about this when David is factually and provably correct about something.

  21. Cstudent says:

    My only critic on this article would for the staff of cmp not to waste time in the comments section with free college level english lessons and instead concentrate the manpower ressources in the research area.
    .
    Kind of that 20/80 rule. Don’t waste 80 percent of your time with 20 percent of your users (or 2 percent)

  22. Cstudent says:

    Excelent piece David !
    .
    Thanks for the effort of painstakingly detailing and explaining the mechanics of a current event
    .
    Vam says “There don’t seem to be any new methods here”
    .
    that might be true, however do you see that many articles on the internet describing, illustratin, detailing and explaining for a non chinese speaking audience what is going on here (without an ‘agenda’ , something to sell or hoping to get a job ) ?
    .
    I would argue that these almost real time pieces are in fact what the cmp site has of more valuable content
    .

  23. David says:

    Itlee:

    Updating with three screenshots of Sina Weibo searches done just now, 5:38pm Hong Kong time — of “shanwei”, of “wukan” and of “shanwei wukan”.

    Nice try, though.

    Best,
    David

  24. ltlee says:

    A lot of falsehood above. Just the most obvious:
    All searches for “Wukan” and “Shanwei” on Sina Weibo yield messages that read: “According to relevant laws and regulations, search results for ‘Wukan’ can not be shown.” Estimates put Shanwei’s population at around 700,000 — so imagine a major internet platform in the United States blocking searches for “Detroit.”

    A search with “Shanwei Wukan” returned the following: (first half of the first page shown below.)
    —————————————-
    汕尾乌坎的最新相关信息
    广东汕尾代市长:乌坎猝死村民家属情绪稳定 雅虎资讯 3小时前
    2011年12月15日…中新社汕尾12月14日电(记者索有为)广东汕尾市政府14日举行媒体见面会,向媒体通报了因乌坎事件被警方羁押的嫌犯薛锦波死亡原因调…
    广东陆丰乌坎违纪村官被双规 人民网法治 9小时前
    乌坎“9.21”事件续:被羁押人员家属探视 南方网 1天前
    汕尾通报乌坎事件嫌疑人死因:排除外力致死可能 搜狐新闻中心 7小时前

    汕尾乌坎的最新微博结果
    财新网:【广东检方通报“乌坎村民羁押期间身亡”事件】据陆丰官方通报,12月11日上午10时51分,薛锦波突然身体不适,值班民警立即将其送往看守所附近的汕尾市第二人民医院抢救。持续抢救30多分钟后,医院宣告抢治无效死亡,时间为当日上午11时40分,医院出具的死因诊断为心源性猝死http://t.itc.cn/LQAJu

    1小时前 – 搜狐微博 – 评论
    新闻头条:【广东陆丰乌坎4村民被分3处关押 获准与亲人见面】被羁押的张建城、洪锐潮、庄烈宏、曾昭亮等4名嫌犯亲属分别到汕尾、深圳、广州三地看守所探望被拘人员。据悉,被押猝死村民无外力致死迹象,“遗体指甲完整,未见骨折征象”。事件违纪村官均被纪委“双规”。http://t.itc.cn/Lxk6W http://t.itc.cn/LEJKw分享视频查看图片
    2小时前 – 搜狐微博 – 评论
    废城农民:南方都市报:汕尾通报乌坎事件嫌疑人死因调查结果 – 昨日,汕尾市政府通报了关于陆丰乌坎村上访事件犯罪嫌疑人薛锦波羁押期间猝死的尸表检查结果。由第三方权威鉴定机构公布的尸表检查结果显示:没有发现有外力致死迹象,具体死亡原因待进一步调查。http://url.cn/4XdxZj
    4小时前 – 腾讯微博 – 评论
    汕尾妥善处置乌坎事件 村民合理诉求全部落实_资讯频道_凤凰网
    2011年12月10日… 9月21日,陆丰市东海镇乌坎村发生少数村民聚众滋事故意毁坏财物事件以来…昨日下午,汕尾市人民政府新闻办公室召开新闻发布会,向媒体通报了乌坎事件…
    news.ifeng.com/gundong/detail_2011_12/10/ … 2011-12-10 – 百度快照
    汕尾市通报陆丰东海镇乌坎村民聚集上访事件处置情况 – 新华法治 -…
    2011年12月10日…汕尾市通报陆丰东海镇乌坎村民聚集上访事件处置情况—(记者/李强 洪继宇)昨日下午,汕尾市举行新闻发布会,向媒体通报陆丰东海镇乌坎村民聚集上访事件…
    news.xinhuanet.com/legal/2011-12/10/c_111 … 2011-12-10 – 百度快照
    —————————————–

  25. Vam says:

    There dont seem to be any new methods here . . . Though it would be interesting to see how effective the censors are in controlling the spread of the news vs, for instance, news of the hsr crash of a few months ago. Also, we saw with the stepped up brutality in the wake of the jasmine revolution rumours this year that, at a national level, authorities are truly paranoid about plots against them. So, i’m wondering if in wukan ringleaders will be sought out or if the townspeople will be treated as an aggrieved collective. Anyway. Isnt it cool how theyre saying ‘hey wait a minute, we’re not too bad at this self-government thing’

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