Trashing the Script

Protests, Democracy, and Kinship Organizations in China

In the spring of 1992, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping toured southern China. This was the trip that furthered the opening of China’s state-run economy, and in which Deng made the famous speech about socialism with Chinese characteristics. He emphasized private ownership, foreign investment, and reforming the rural countryside.

Two decades later the region has largely fulfilled Deng’s prophecy of catching up to the four Asian tigers—Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore—although this has not been without social consequences. The economy of Southern China has been growing at a tremendous rate, especially in the province of Guangdong, which has enabled some to become very rich. As a result, growth has outstripped regulation, allowing those with connections, wealth, and power to exploit loopholes as well as villagers. Here, the lack of legal constraints favors the few and fails the vast majority of the population.

The impoverished are making their voices heard. A 2005 government report on “mass incidents” said popular uprisings increased from 10,000 in 1993 to 60,000 in 2003. More recently, the Chinese Academy of Governance reported that the number of protests doubled from 2006 to 2010, reaching 180,000. Sun Liping at Qinghua University in Beijing also estimates that there were nearly 200,000 protests in 2010. Some of these “mass incidents” were labor disputes involving a few hundred workers, while others included entire villages of tens of thousands of people.

Given reports of protest activity over the past year, the exponential rise shows no sign of slowing. While one narrative speaks of a sullied legacy on the twenty-year anniversary of Deng’s southern tour, another tells of traditional organizational techniques empowering people in new ways that challenge the script of civil society and democratic development. And this latter story has a new model in Wukan, the village that revolted in the final months of 2011—and won.

The Case of Wukan Village

The village of Wukan lies three hours up the coast from Shenzhen, the industrial center just over the Hong Kong border that has been the face of China’s growth miracle. With a population of 13,000 (some reports say 20,000), Wukan is more akin to a noisy market town rather than a rustic agricultural village. Like most of the region’s villages, Wukan has seen much of its farmland converted to industrial and commercial uses over the past two decades. In the early 1990s, following Deng’s tour, local governments began to sell and lease village-owned agricultural lands to developers and industry for factory construction. Villagers saw none of the profit from the sales, but they did find themselves in the dire position of being peasants without land.

Frustration in Wukan reached a tipping point in 2009 when a small group of villagers in their twenties began to fume at the injustice of having their village land taken away, and at the concomitant inequality and lack of opportunity. They organized themselves on internet message boards, and in the ensuing years they took their case through the court of appeals at the county, district, and provincial levels. Two years and eleven appeals later, justice had still not been served.

Realizing they would need more radical action to bring their case to the attention of higher authorities, this youth group organized a protest. In September of 2011, villagers stormed the local government and chased out the local administration and party secretary, who is responsible for the land sales and seen as corrupt. The government response was to send in the riot police and beat protesters, which further inflamed the situation. In an attempt to alleviate the confrontation, the government called for negotiations. Villagers elected thirteen representatives, but while negotiations were still underway in December, police snatched five of the key leaders off the street and held them captive. Before dawn on Sunday morning, December 11, 2011, the People’s Armed Police attempted to enter the village, but were met with stiff resistance. In the two-hour standoff that ensued, the police fired tear gas and water cannons before retreating. One of the five representatives died that day in police custody. The police say he died from a heart attack; the family says he was tortured to death.

Over the next ten days the village was sealed off. Villagers were very resourceful in getting journalists in and out, however, which facilitated the extensive media coverage of the event. Villagers made three demands: release the four representatives still held captive, return the body of the dead representative, and recognize the legality of the village assembly. On December 21—the day for which a major protest march on the township government was scheduled—the Guangdong provincial government reached out to a village elder and promised to meet all of the demands.

Learning from Wukan

The inspirational force of this rebellion should not be underestimated. Take for example the protest at the end of December 2011 in the city of Haimen, Guangdong, just a few hours northeast of Wukan. Over 30,000 people occupied the streets in a four-day protest over environmental degradation and pollution from a local power plant. Organizers cited Wukan as the impetus for acting on the discontent that had long been simmering. More recently, a protest over illegal land sales in the southern Fujian village of Xibian had over a thousand people surround the local government and unfurl a banner that read, “Learn from Wukan.”

When asked about the meaning of Wukan, Xibian villagers related the frustrating lack of response to previous protests. After observing the Wukan protest, they got online to understand the reasons for its success, studying the organization, mobilization, and negotiating strategies. They revamped their operation and took to protest again, this time winning recognition and a promise of resolution.

What other villagers are learning from Wukan is how to make use of traditional social arrangements in new and empowering ways. Wukan is serving as an inspiring example for villagers to utilize institutions that are ready at hand for mobilization and emancipation, rather than relying on those imported from outside or imposed from above. In this way, liberation of ordinary men and women from the control and subjugation of others is happening from the ground up by drawing on whatever is necessary and available.

In the case of Wukan this force is the kinship organization.

Kinship Organizations

The organizational capacity and scale of the Wukan protest was nothing short of phenomenal. Here, a single village of 13,000 people of diverse interests self-organized into a single movement with clearly articulated demands. They unified, built trust, created working groups, divided tasks, solicited donations, and distributed resources. Furthermore, because it is against the law to organize in China, they did this clandestinely and incredibly quickly; they got each and every member of the village fully onboard, as a failure to do so would risk being exposed and compromised.

This level of mobilization was achieved through kinship groups. Also known as lineages, these groups are found throughout the Chinese countryside, most commonly in the south. Members usually have the same surname and claim to come from a common ancestor. Membership can range from ten persons to one hundred thousand. The organizations manage local affairs on behalf of their members; their activities include social services, fund-raising for public works, and the handling of local disputes. They have existed for hundreds of years and have a long history of guaranteeing equal participation among members.

Critics say that these organizations create social inequality and enslave individuals. They say they are feudal vestiges that act to keep people suppressed economically, politically, and spiritually by reproducing discriminatory hierarchies and gender roles. Max Weber saw these as ascriptive groups that bound individuals to fixed social stations. Much of the social-science establishment has followed suit, and the Chinese communist state adopted such a position in making a point of eradicating kinship groups during the collectivization period (1950s-80s), attacking them as an enemy of the people.

By the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) the formal organization of the kinship group had been destroyed. The festivals and ceremonies were banned; the communal family houses, ancestral tablets and altars, and books and records of genealogies were destroyed. What remained, however, was the means by which kinship organized social relations. People still continued to interact and relate to each other through the structure of the lineage; they maintained the interconnection of personal and familial relationships and roles. When the Cultural Revolution ended, the lineages revived to organize these informal relationships into formal activities, such as ancestral worship, building roads and bridges, and providing social services. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, kinship organizations have also been at the forefront of social protests and intimately involved in the fight for villagers’ rights, as exemplified in the case of Wukan.

Organizing Wukan

In September, when Wukan activists decided to move from judicial action to social protest, they had to move quickly and secretively. The internet could not be used, as it was too transparent and would only garner the support of a narrow segment of the population. As one of the original organizers put it, “The common psychology is that when witnessing a crowd, people will join. When there is really a large crowd and it does not matter if there is one more or less person, people will not be afraid to join. Thus we thought to convince forty to fifty people to our cause who could bring everyone together.” Those forty to fifty people were the key figures of the village lineages.

Contrary to the autocratic picture painted by critics, lineages are democratic organizations. Lineage leaders are chosen by the membership. Traditionally, seniority in the lineage was paramount, along with the ability to mediate affairs and maintain reputable qualities, such as honesty, integrity, and impartiality. In modern times, however, seniority has become less important, while capability and personal character have gained primacy. Decision making is not concentrated at the top, and matters are discussed and voted on at open meetings. In this way, lineages have come to serve as a vehicle to give voice to different opinions and focus them into concentrated action without alienating or sidelining anyone.

This organization was on full display when villagers gathered to discuss the situation brought to them by the youth group on September 21, 2011. Minutes of the meeting are not available, but interviews with participants tell of an outpouring of discontent that erupted into spontaneous action. Villagers young and old marched on the local government, clashed with police, and forced local officials to flee.

What happened after that evinced the awesome organizational power of the lineage in full force. With the local administration gone, villagers assessed the situation and took over the running of the village. They quickly formed a representative assembly to take care of village affairs, which included strategizing, task allocation, briefing the village on daily events, fund-raising, and administration. This assembly was also in charge of negotiations with the state.

Assembly activity and task execution, as well as elections to the assembly, also took place through the kinship groups. The village has 47 kinship groups organized by surname, each consisting of a few people to a few hundred people. These 47 groups each internally elected one to five representatives, depending on their size, for a total of 117 representatives. The 117 representatives then decided on 38 candidates to run for 13 spots on the assembly. These 13 elected representatives formed the Transitional Representative Executive Assembly.

Kinship organizations also facilitated the formation of task forces for the running of daily village and protest affairs. Both within and across surnames, groups of individuals specializing in various administrative and social functions undertook activities such as cooking and policing, as well as handling the immediate needs of the protest, such as media communications and blockades. The kinship groups were key to mobilizing a village of this size not just in the organization and administration of thousands of people, but also in providing a basis of trust that enabled people to work toward a common goal, whether that be keeping the streets clean, smuggling in journalists, or negotiating a settlement with the government on behalf of the entire village.

Trashing the Script: Learning from Wukan, Take 2

This organizational and bonding work done by kinship organizations flies in the face of our understanding about China and about democracy. Democratic theory holds that democracy comes as a package of institutions that must stand or fall together. The most basic parts of this package are popular sovereignty through representative democracy and universal suffrage, combined with devices to disperse power among different agencies of the state, such as congresses or legislatures.

Similarly, China observers from Karl Marx and Max Weber all the way up to present-day commentators have called for the modernization of China’s markets, the abrogation of its traditions, and the democratization of its politics. These advocates make a necessary connection between human emancipation and specific social, economic, and political arrangements.

And yet events in Wukan and elsewhere speak of other arrangements for self-emancipation. Democratic developments are happening through the very organizations that observers and policymakers say need to be abolished in order for democracy to flourish: the kinship organization. Wukan is showing that the empowerment of individuals and groups has no set form and no predetermined structure. The democratic means of empowerment do not run through constitutions and political parties, but rather are built from the very materials at hand in the current reality.

As waves of discontent with the US and European political systems morph into organized action from Wall Street to the streets of Rome in a search for new social and political arrangements, Chinese villagers may serve as an inspiration—an inspiration not in institutional form, but in active process and subversive effort, where people reimagine and recreate their societies out of its existing structures.

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  1. Ian says:

    Excellent piece! Congrats for having done real research and follow-up–essential for our understanding of China.

  2. David Cowhig says:

    He Qinglian discussed the rise of clan power in rural Guangdong and Fujian Provinces in the last few chapters of her 1995 book “China and the Pitfalls of Modernization” 中国现代化的陷阱. She described the retreat of communist power on the local level in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces during the 1980s and the return of traditional clan power.
    As to whether clan power can be a democratic force, Cao Jinqing in his 1998 book “China Along the Yellow River” 黄河边的中国 found that ‘it depends’. Discussing mid 1990s rural Henan, Cao noticed a pattern: villages where nearly everyone belonged to the same clan had benevolent ‘good governance’ but villages divided fairly evenly among several clans had one clan running roughshod over the other clans.

  3. Noah Skocilich says:

    Thank you for this excellent and inspirational piece of journalism. I have lived in China for several years and followed the Wukan Uprising closely, and still learned a great deal that I simply had no idea about before.

    Thank you!

  4. Lane Hall says:

    You end with the optimistic sense that embedded structures such as the kinship clans could somehow be activated in the West. But what are such structures? Perhaps similar relational lineage ties exist in some parts of Europe, but I see few sites of translation for North American culture.

    I’d be interested in your further thoughts on this. Great article, btw.

  5. Macabe Keliher says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments. We are pleased to have such positive response on this piece

    @David: He Qinglan’s book is one of the works we argue against, as it sees the lineage as a bastion of tradition and backwardness. Cao’s book is really just field notes without any analysis, and thus not very helpful in understanding how lineages work.

    @Noah: Much of the reporting on Wukan from both the foreign and domestic press showed a real lack of understanding of the organizational capacity of the protests and the structure of the local societies. Too often concepts like protest, leadership, or organization are used without reflection and with preset assumptions. We hold that these assumptions are grounded in a certain script about how society works; a script that must be trashed!

    @Lane: Each society will have its own arrangement, which can and should be employed for emancipatory purposes. Our position is that it is a fallacy to think that there are a given number of types of ways of organizing society that are democratic or emancipatory. Similarly, social development and change does not follow a script, moving from one stage to another. Rather, groups of individuals and societies will use the materials at hand (such as the lineage) to recreate their associations and interactions in more flexible and empowering ways.

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