The Wukan Soviet

or “Occupy Wukan”?


By Matthew Turner, January 2012

So­viet: noun
  1. an elec­ted loc­al, dis­trict, or na­tion­al coun­cil in the former So­viet Uni­on.

  2. a cit­izen of the former So­viet Uni­on.
    ORIGIN early 20th cent.: from Rus­si­an so­viet ‘coun­cil.’

It may be bet­ter to in­vent new terms when talk­ing about a “so­viet-oc­cu­pied ter­rit­ory” — a con­fus­ing term that, in the United States at any rate, of­ten im­plies noth­ing more than hu­man depriva­tion, and def­in­itely not a self-suf­fi­cient base of ac­tion. But the so­viet base, ter­rit­ory, or coun­cil is only ad­jectiv­al in the sense that it an­nounces what kind of land the oc­cu­pants live on (for ex­ample, the ques­tion: “Is it a so­viet re­pub­lic or is it a cor­por­ate pro­tect­or­ate?”). The neg­at­ive con­nota­tions at­tached to the term, however, are most pre­val­ent in those lan­guages ex­pressed by en­trenched cor­por­ate power — in coun­tries where, iron­ic­ally, so­vi­ets nev­er ex­is­ted, and even the no­tion of coun­cil-con­trolled land would pose the greatest threat to cor­por­ate power.

For a prop­er use or his­tor­ic­al un­der­stand­ing of the term, it is ne­ces­sary to use the term “so­viet” as it is ori­gin­ally in­ten­ded — that or suc­cumb to in­tel­lec­tu­al mer­cant­il­ism and his­tor­ic­al am­ne­sia. The only case in which what I am call­ing cor­por­ate use may be ad­equate is, glibly, when de­scrib­ing the ef­fect of so­viet life on those who have been force­fully de­prived of their priv­ileges — in the phys­ic­al space where one class has over­thrown an­oth­er class. In that sense only can one speak of the “so­viet” con­di­tions — con­di­tions that would break apart con­gealed, cor­por­ate, power struc­tures, and es­tab­lish new, in­verse, ones — that would surely await the up­per classes.

In a coun­try so large as China, what has be­come a polit­ic­al tra­di­tion con­tin­ues not only un­der the aus­pices of the gov­ern­ment, but simply by wide­spread un­re­flect­ive or cyn­ic­al prac­tice.

Be­ing some­what fa­mil­i­ar with the his­tory of Chinese so­vi­ets, I was asked to write a piece on rad­ic­al Chinese polit­ics. But the Chinese term for polit­ics, 政治, is ety­mo­lo­gic­ally closer to the terms “gov­ern­ment con­trol” and “gov­ern­ment man­age­ment” than the West­ern πολιτικός, which im­plies a com­mons, open de­bate and con­sensus. For that reas­on, however, it is to me the more com­plex term, dir­ectly at odds with what is of­ten con­sidered to be the es­sence of be­ne­vol­ent gov­ernance. It is also the term that is dir­ectly re­flec­ted in the polit­ic­al prac­tice of “free” Chinese so­vi­ets. The pre-1949 Chinese so­vi­ets made no pre­text of find­ing “com­mon ground.” There was an ex­ploited class and a rul­ing class, and petty bour­geois in­tel­lec­tu­als and bour­geois mer­chants would be in­cor­por­ated ac­cord­ing to the needs of the so­viet.

This his­tor­ic­al lack of a polit­ic­al com­mons was evid­ent in the Chinese so­vi­ets, and also con­tin­ues today. As much as it may be re­por­ted that Ai Wei­wei and Gao Zhisheng are ex­em­plary dis­sid­ents, some­how in­tel­lec­tu­al fig­ure­heads of the 100,000+ “mass in­cid­ents” that hap­pen in China every year, it is im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that in a coun­try so geo­graph­ic­ally large (and pop­u­lated) as China, what has be­come a polit­ic­al tra­di­tion con­tin­ues not only un­der the aus­pices of the gov­ern­ment, but simply by wide­spread un­re­flect­ive or cyn­ic­al prac­tice. The rad­ic­al polit­ics of the day — if there truly are any — are closer to wild­cat strikes than they are to oc­cu­pa­tions or, es­pe­cially, to so­vi­ets. As is well known, the Chinese so­vi­ets took protests to the level of es­tab­lish­ing con­trol as well.

First, we will take a look at the his­tor­ic­al re­cord1:

  1. After the fail­ure of the short-lived Hailufeng So­viet in Guang­dong Province (“Can­ton”), just and un­just dis­cip­lin­ary meas­ures are taken.
  2. Later that same year (1927), Com­mun­ists re­group in the Ji­angxi So­viet. In Ji­angxi they at­tempt to purge the area of land­lords and oth­er re­ac­tion­ar­ies, as well as es­tab­lish a new cur­rency and lim­ited pub­lic works. The base is used as a for­ti­fic­a­tion from which mo­bil­iz­a­tions can be car­ried out. Mao Zedong sub­sequently emerges as a su­per­i­or tac­ti­cian, and Zhou En­lai, much-loved for his dip­lomacy, be­gins play­ing second fiddle. Dis­cip­line is es­tab­lished in a base made up al­most ex­clus­ively of peas­ants and in­tel­lec­tu­als — the urb­an work­ing class Com­mun­ists hav­ing already been decim­ated by Na­tion­al­ist “demo­crat­ic” forces. After re­pelling mul­tiple raids by the Na­tion­al­ists, the Com­mun­ists are severely weakened, and re­treat on the Long March to Yan­nan, in the north­w­est.
  3. In Yan­nan, Party lead­er­ship brooks no dis­sent, and Party hier­archy hardens. Des­pite pub­lic­a­tion of the “philo­soph­ic­al es­says” of Mao Zedong, and the es­tab­lish­ment of the Lu Xun Art Col­lege, crit­ic­al thought is hence­forth “right­ist,” and sub­ject to re­form.
The “Wukan In­cid­ent” has ab­so­lutely been the most suc­cess­ful group ac­tion of re­cent years, and may also have been the most com­pre­hens­ive.

Now con­sider the es­tab­lish­ment of bases of left­ist ac­tion in con­tra­dis­tinc­tion to the re­cent polit­ic­al activ­ity in the vil­lage of Wukan, which is os­tens­ibly without ideo­logy, and hence heav­ily covered as an “anti-cor­rup­tion” move­ment in the West­ern me­dia. The “Wukan In­cid­ent” has ab­so­lutely been the most suc­cess­ful group ac­tion of re­cent years, and may also have been the most com­pre­hens­ive.

  1. Vil­la­gers in Wukan (pop­u­la­tion es­tim­ated between 10,000 and 15,000), Lufeng town­ship, in Guang­dong Province, are giv­en little to no no­tice that much of their land has been sold for in­dus­tri­al de­vel­op­ment by loc­al Party of­fi­cials, and are later giv­en a pit­tance for com­pens­a­tion. In Septem­ber 2011 vil­la­gers be­gin protest­ing these re­cent land sales, also es­tab­lish­ing a com­mit­tee and spokespeople in or­der to ne­go­ti­ate with loc­al of­fi­cials. Three vil­lage lead­ers are ar­res­ted, and one, Xue Jinbo, quickly dies in po­lice cus­tody from what ap­pears to be tor­ture. His body is not re­leased. More ar­rests fol­low.
  2. By early Decem­ber protests es­cal­ate. Vil­la­gers at­tack the loc­al po­lice sta­tion and Party headquar­ters. Party of­fi­cials, as well as po­lice, flee the vil­lage for Lufeng city. Po­lice set up bar­ri­cades, stop­ping food and oth­er ne­ces­sary goods from en­ter­ing the city. Po­lice also en­hance in­ter­net fire­walls, end­ing any com­mu­nic­a­tion with oth­er area vil­lages.
  3. By late Decem­ber com­mu­nic­a­tion is es­tab­lished with Wang Yang, Sec­ret­ary of the Guang­dong Pro­vin­cial Com­mit­tee of the Com­mun­ist Party of China. Sec­ret­ary Wang leads ne­go­ti­ations with vil­lage lead­ers, se­cur­ing the re­lease of sev­er­al pris­on­ers, ef­fect­ing changes in loc­al elec­tions, and open­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of bet­ter com­pens­a­tion for (or re­turn of) land. Vil­la­gers are told that loc­al Party of­fi­cials and po­lice will be held re­spons­ible for their ac­tions, and will suf­fer con­sequences for en­cour­aging land use vi­ol­a­tions. Skep­tics in­sist Sec­ret­ary Wang is simply ma­nip­u­lat­ing the vil­la­gers in or­der strengthen the Party. It is un­known if vil­la­gers ac­tu­ally con­test Party lead­er­ship. Vil­la­gers await the out­come.

Wukan’s res­id­ents dis­played re­mark­able de­term­in­a­tion and or­gan­iz­a­tion, while nev­er re­sort­ing to the purges that quickly came to char­ac­ter­ize the Chinese so­vi­ets. Change was af­fected by mo­bil­iz­ing vil­la­gers, empty­ing the area of loc­al rep­res­ent­at­ives of state au­thor­ity, re­as­sert­ing the cause in the face of priva­tion, and en­ter­ing ne­go­ti­ations with non-loc­al au­thor­it­ies. Re­gion­al au­thor­it­ies will be able to test their solu­tion to the “Wukan In­cid­ent” as they ap­peal to Cent­ral Party lead­er­ship for aid in work­ing against re­cal­cit­rant loc­al au­thor­it­ies, re­gard­less of their ac­tu­al in­ten­tions. In ef­fect, at least on the sur­face of things, something closer to a “con­sensus mod­el” of polit­ics has been reached.

Fig. 1: An ex­ample of cur­rency used in the Chinese So­viet Re­pub­lic.

Des­pite this, in a re­cent ed­it­or­i­al for the New York Times3, nov­el­ist Yu Hua seemed to mock av­er­age Chinese for ex­actly this be­lief in ap­peal­ing to re­gion­al or na­tion­al au­thor­it­ies (as op­posed to loc­al au­thor­it­ies), and for a lack of un­der­stand­ing of what he sees as the ab­surd fu­til­ity of their polit­ic­al situ­ation. His lam­poon­ing of loc­als be­wildered by real­politik is also a send-up of the sup­posed wis­dom and be­ne­vol­ence of the highest levels of state, as well as the be­lief that an anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign can neatly solve China’s struc­tur­al prob­lems:

Vic­tims of cor­rup­tion and in­justice have no faith in the law, and yet they dream that an up­right of­fi­cial will emerge to right their wrongs…[P]eti­tion­ers seem to be­lieve that the cent­ral au­thor­it­ies are less sus­cept­ible to cor­rup­tion…

But that is what is at is­sue here: the be­lief that a protest can solve struc­tur­al prob­lems by pre­sum­ing those prob­lems to be the res­ult of per­son­al de­fi­cien­cies (i.e. a greedy or ig­nor­ant dis­pos­i­tion). The be­lief that each in­di­vidu­al can have equal op­por­tun­ity to air griev­ances, and pos­sibly de­lib­er­ate over solu­tions, of­ten ends up by­passing the in­hu­mane side of struc­tur­al prob­lems, demon­strat­ing that, for ex­ample, fisc­al di­vi­sions have noth­ing to do with fisc­al mar­kets or cap­it­al as­sets, but with one’s mo­tiv­a­tions. Here, akin to Yu Hua’s as­ser­tion that, for Wukan, the dis­pos­ses­sion of land would have noth­ing to do with the sys­tem­ic al­lot­ment of it, the prob­lem seems to be either a per­ver­sion of that al­lot­ment or the in­ab­il­ity to de­fend it. If of­fi­cials be­haved in an “up­right” man­ner, or cit­izens were giv­en stronger prop­erty rights, the prob­lems would not ex­ist. But as long as such a be­lief re­mains in place, neither a full un­der­stand­ing, nor a sus­tained cri­tique of the struc­ture of of­fi­cial­dom and rep­res­ent­a­tion, will be able to come to fruition. In such cases, polit­ic­al solu­tions are only found in in­ter­me­di­ar­ies privy to the sys­tem, but also will­ing to bend an ear to its vic­tims — such as Sec­ret­ary Wang. Even the will to in­sist that re­form can hap­pen is turned in­to a re­ac­tion­ary symp­tom of the sys­tem. Vil­la­gers do not end up un­der­min­ing or dis­mant­ling a sys­tem that not only denies them the right to de­lib­er­ate over the pub­lic own­er­ship of land, but also lords over them as a su­per­nu­mer­ary “pub­lic.” In ef­fect, they are demon­strat­ing that the sys­tem can ac­tu­ally work — as long as the right people are per­form­ing their du­ties cor­rectly, and vil­la­gers un­der­stand that they are only com­ple­ments to that sys­tem.

Fur­ther­more, when com­par­ing vari­ous Chinese so­vi­ets with Wukan, one does not draw tired con­trasts based on the de­grees to which the so­vi­ets and Wukan’s cit­izen or­gan­iz­a­tion dis­cip­lined them­selves. As much as is known about Com­mun­ist purges, too little is known about Wukan’s or­gan­iz­a­tion to say. One is in­stead struck by the aims — a re­volu­tion, versus at­temp­ted re­form — and how much we know about them, based on their rep­res­ent­a­tions by com­par­at­ively lib­er­al me­dia out­lets. For ex­ample, un­til ne­go­ti­ations were in full ef­fect, little was said in the “tim­id” Chinese press re­gard­ing Wukan, while it was cel­eb­rated else­where as demo­cracy in ac­tion, sim­il­ar to the kind of act­iv­ist re­form that West­ern­ers ima­gine to be a hu­man birth­right. I ima­gine the situ­ation would have been dif­fer­ent if Wukan had an­nounced it­self a clas­sic­al so­viet, and that cov­er­age would not have been re­duced to plat­it­udes of con­sensus and con­trol, cor­rup­tion and act­iv­ism. But the mor­al per­sua­sion at work when com­par­ing these two dif­fer­ent scen­ari­os is truly an ef­fect of an ab­surd situ­ation, re­du­cing his­tor­ic­ally com­plex situ­ations and sys­tems to swift judg­ments of “right­ness” based on sed­i­men­ted val­ues and fos­sil­ized means of ob­tain­ing and pro­cessing in­form­a­tion (which priv­ileges ob­ser­va­tion and judg­ment over par­ti­cip­at­ory ac­tion).

As such, one is really only guess­ing what would have happened if Wukan had had a more rad­ic­al vis­ion of how their vil­lage (and their province, and their coun­try, and so on) should run. Or, what would have happened if they had re­fused to co­oper­ate at all with state au­thor­ity? Most likely, armed forced would have come in and emp­tied the place. On the oth­er hand, I am afraid that, at the end of the day, by trust­ing au­thor­ity to act in their best in­terests, the “Wukan In­cid­ent” will be an ob­ject les­son in what not to do if you want to ef­fect long-last­ing, struc­tur­al change — the kind of change that emerges from a truly autonom­ous con­sensus. There is no easy scen­ario here, and it’s not as if a simple choice to go one way or the oth­er can be made, but I can at least say kudos to both the Ji­angxi So­viet and the vil­lage of Wukan for not los­ing them­selves in rhet­or­ic, and not al­low­ing them­selves to be­come totally cor­rup­ted by gov­ern­ment sym­path­izers, wheth­er apo­lo­gists of a cal­ci­fied polit­ic­al sys­tem or pro­mot­ing a sav­agely ideal­ist­ic vis­ion of what should be (I will end say­ing apro­pos the Amer­ic­an liber­tari­ans, who are simply hu­man­ized cap­it­al­ists to the ex­treme).


  1. For a good out­line of these and oth­er events, see Ori­gins of the Chinese Re­volu­tion, 1915-1949, by Lu­cien Bi­anco. 

  2. See “Grim Fu­ture for Wukan Mod­el,” by Wil­lie Lam, for a thor­ough sum­mary and ana­lys­is of the “Wukan In­cid­ent.” 

  3. In China, the Griev­ances Keep Com­ing“ 

Matthew Turner is a poet and professor of literature. He recently returned to the U.S. after six years of teaching in Beijing where he also worked as a journalist and editor for various newspapers and translation outfits. He can be reached at mateo.tornero.

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