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Occupy Wukan: Or What the Chinese Can Teach OWS About Democracy and Revolution

The most exciting aspect of Occupy Wall Street was seeing Americans—young and old, white and black, Jew and Muslim—coming together in public spaces to talk about matters of public importance. The most disheartening failure of Occupy Wall Street was how quickly those conversations turned to navel gazing. Instead of aiming to lead, to take on responsibility, and to honestly and courageously work to impact the public world around them, the protesters (and that is what they are, at least to date, rather than revolutionaries) satisfied themselves with talking to like-minded people about their dreams and hopes. Occupy Wall Street fizzled because the passions and happiness at making a difference gave way to the solipsistic self-pleasuring of those speaking to themselves, and those like them.

Consider, as an alternative, the villagers of Wukan, China. In September of 2011, the village government sold town land to real-estate developers. Such deals are reportedly common in China, since China repealed local agricultural taxes in 2006. To raise money to run local governments, Chinese local officials are increasingly selling farmland to developers. According to Michael Young, “the local government compensates the farmers with a minimum amount of money and then is paid 50 times more by the developer.”  According to Young, “60 to 70 percent of local government income comes from selling land to developers.” The land sales “enrich officials” and also contribute to economic growth of China.

The land sales have generated huge resentment throughout China, and for a while Wukan was no different. In 2009 villages petitioned and protested the sale of 67 acres of land to a Hong Kong developer. In September of 2011, another protest erupted, but this time serious clashes only intensified the protests. Eventually new villagers were elected to the village government. One of these, Xue Jinbo, was then arrested and died in custody, amidst rumors of torture and mistreatment. The resulting uproar led to something unheard of in China: A free and democratic village election with secret ballots.

On February 11, 2012, over 6,000 of the Wukan’s 8,000 residents filled out “pink ballots in rows of plywood booths that ensured their choices would remain secret, then dropped them in big steel boxes sealed with tamper-proof stickers.

Officials tallied the votes in the schoolyard as residents looked on.” According to The New York Times report,

It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China’s opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan’s struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders.

Even as the Times article reports on the amazing victory in Wukan and the optimism it has spawned, the narrative of the article questions whether anything will change. The corruption underlying the land sales is deep and “reaches into layers of higher governments.” The new leaders of Wukan have received threats. Other similar attempts at protests in China have lately been suppressed: “this month in Zhejiang province, north of Guangdong, officials suppressed a Wukan-style land protest in Panhe by systematically rounding up protest leaders and sealing their village off from journalists.” The Times quotes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar, who argues:  “Reform in China doesn’t start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward.”

I am not an expert in Chinese politics. But dismissals of the Wukan revolution—and that is what happened in Wukan—do seem to ignore the incredible and seemingly impossible victories of the people there.

So what, we must ask, has changed in China? How does the people’s occupation and revolution in Wukan compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement here?

Whether or not the people of Wukan get their land back, they have tasted what Hannah Arendt calls public freedom. Like OWS, the people of Wukan experienced the joy of collective action in public. In both cases, they did not simply protest. They also created councils and general assemblies and thus built organizations in which people could act together in public. But there is where the similarities end.

In Wukan, the people did not only occupy parks. They came together and created a new power in society and used that power to take over their government.

Leaders emerged, who channeled the spirit of protest into demands not only for redress of their land claims but for an openness and participation in government. What Wukan shows, in other words, is a new model for revolutionary politics in China—a path towards the creation of local power centers built upon the consensus of individual villagers.

I have no doubt that China can, if it wants, violently suppress these concretions of people power. As Syria is showing now, unrelenting violence can overcome power. And yet, to employ such violence risks destroying the power of the state itself, which is always based upon the consensus of the people. More likely, the revolution in Wukan is an example of the way that people in China are, in steps big and small, demanding the control of their political fate.

What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of “Public Happiness.” From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt’s words,

They knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.

Arendt was always alive to this sense of “public happiness” which she distinguished from the economic and social needs that comprised being well fed and comfortable. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one’s particular interests, nor in doing one’s duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans “enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions.”  It was this passion to be involved, to be seen and heard in matters of public importance, and to distinguish oneself before one’s peers that Arendt points to as central to the experience of freedom in America.

The promise of Occupy Wall Street was not simply that it would bring about economic equality or other specific results. It was that it returned citizens to the public square to engage again in the public life of the nation. Its failure, at least to date, is that its activists refused to take seriously the responsibility and need to speak and act not only in public, but also for the public.

By avoiding taking stands, by eschewing leadership, by insisting on appealing to everybody, by seeking to offend no one, and by holding themselves above and outside of politics, the movement became consumed by itself, inward looking, and, ultimately, apolitical. The joy of OWS did not translate, as did the joy of the collective action in Wukan, into political power. If we are to rejuvenate our political culture, it is better to look to the revolutionaries in Wukan than the protesters in Zuccotti Park. Or rather, maybe the OWS movement needs to pay attention to Wukan, and think about how to transform its power, joy, and public engagement into political channels.

See the NY Times Slideshow of the Voting in Wukan, here.

-RB

 

Posted on 7 March 2012 | 1:18 pm

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