[Viewpoint] No political reform, no growth

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[Viewpoint] No political reform, no growth

Kim San was an ethnic Korean rebel involved in the Communist movement in China during the late 1920s. He is the hero in the 1941 book “The Song of Arirang” by American journalist Nym Wales. He was serving as a member of the revolutionary court of the Chinese Soviet territory Hailufeng, which is now a part of Guangdong Province. His role was to question suspicious farmers brought in to discern whether or not they were supporters of the revolution. He was declared fit for the job because, as a foreigner, he would have a more objective eye.

One day an innocent-faced youth came in arrested. His hands were white and soft, implying that he was born into a rich family. Peng Pai, a pioneer of the Chinese land reform movement and one of the leaders of the young Communist Party, advised indecisive Kim that at times of doubt, revolutionists must kill more opponents than less. Kim gave his order to execute the boy. He might have felt justice in persecuting the landowners and their offspring who had amassed wealth from exploiting farmers. The boy’s mother and sister were wailing in his arms as he walked to his death.

Haifeng and Lufeng counties, where Kim was based, had been the sacred birthplace of China’s Communist revolution. The Chinese Communist Party grew and strengthened thanks to its establishment in the first Chinese Soviet territory. One of its leaders, Peng Pai, was born into a wealthy family and was educated in Japan, where he studied political economy. With a firm belief in socialism and economic revolution through a workers’ movement, he converted to a socialist and fought to eradicate landowners. Mao Zedong hailed him as the father of the rural movement.

This Hai-Lu-feng land again served as the stage for a historical movement in China. This time, the fight was for democracy. The epicenter was Wukan Village, part of Lufeng. The descendants of their rural revolutionary hero have joined forces to demonstrate against a head of the Communist Party’s local chapter who seized land and exploited the wealth of villagers.

The uprising started in autumn of last year when villagers discovered that their land was sold off by village leadership without their consent. Xue Chang, who stayed in power for more than four decades without any elections, sold hundreds of hectares of land large enough to build 350 soccer fields to real estate developers. The protests in September and November were regarded as common protests by farmers. But when one of the village representatives elected by residents was arrested during a mass protest in early December and pronounced dead two days later, Wukan villagers were outraged. Villagers vowed to continue their revolutionary movement to fight corruption. The village was sealed off, and authorities even cut off water and food supplies to the village.

More than 100,000 protests occur across China per year. Of them, 65 percent are associated with land. They are panned out in more or less same order: The state orders the media to turn a blind eye to the protests, and when protests lose steam, the police arrest the organizers in hopes of ending the story. But the Wukan case was different. Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, reported the protest scenes live. Bloggers helped foreign journalists enter the village to relay the dire stories and pictures on the besieged town across China and around the world. Authorities have lost media control over Wukan.

It finally led Wang Yang, secretary of the Guangdong Committee of the Communist Party, to name one of the representatives behind the protests as the new village head to appease the villagers. The leadership was directly elected by the villagers for the first time.

But Western media is doubtful that the Wukan movement would have any substantial impact on other parts of the mainland as the civilian uprising was only a revolt against local corruption rather than the central government. It may be just a storm in a teacup. But the fledging signs are hard to dismiss. One village has sent four delegates to Wukan to learn from its democratic feat. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were promulgated through a model reform in a village in Anhui. The Chinese democracy also could start from local movement.

The Wukan crisis underscored the essence of the Chinese disease: bureaucratic corruption. The government officials make shady deals with businessmen to exploit civilian wealth. Under the single-party system, corruption of party officials cannot be thoroughly supervised. The economy should no longer be top priority for China. Wu Jinglian, one of China’s preeminent economists, said there cannot be economic reform without political reform.

There is a saying in China that the staggering growth of the country is stained with blood, meaning behind today’s Chinese riches are the blood and tears of common people. China is gearing up for a more open and democratic society. It is following the wise Chinese saying that with one step back, one can see a bigger sea and sky.

* The author is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.

by You Sang-chul
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