Wukan: Landlessness, Development and Violence in China

By Sam Berlin

Violence and civil disturbance seem to be becoming the new normal in China. The downward revision of economic growth rates, protests in Hong Kong, the Tianjin explosions and the recent stock market crash have raised questions about the sustainability of CCP (Chinese Communist Party) rule. However, though instability and even conflict seem to be waiting on the horizon, these are not new phenomena. Managed conflict has in fact been central to the economic boom that is now seen to be increasingly under threat.

I lived in China from 2007-2008 and again from 2010-2014. During this time, though it was spent in cities, I became increasingly interested in the huge rural population that had migrated, under very different circumstances, to the same places that I had. This interest grew as I learned about the discriminatory legal system that migrants are subjected to, which ultimately limits their prospects in cities, while also compelling them to move to cities by making them centres of employment and economic growth. I was excited to have the chance to research this topic, which will be a major component of my upcoming PhD research, in more detail as a part of the coursework for the Violent Environments unit last spring.

Below is an excerpt from the paper I wrote about the different kinds of violence that led to and were produced by the Wukan Incident, an uprising in response to the confiscation of farmland in a southern Chinese village that grabbed headlines in late 2011.

In December 2011, Western media was abuzz with extraordinary news from the village of Wukan along southern China’s industrialised coastline. Years of murky business dealings finally exhausted the village’s entire supply of farmland and its fishing grounds (Lie 2014), with no consultation and almost no compensation to residents. Exasperated, the village united in protest, hoping to get the provincial and national governments to end the corruption that had destroyed their way of life (He and Xue 2014). After a few days of “demonstrations” (Jacobs 2011) or “riots” (Patience 2011), the local government restored order and, unusually, agreed to investigate the villagers’ grievances and meet with representatives of the protesters. However, in November, they did an about-face, declaring the autonomously assembled Temporary Board of Village Representatives an “illegal organization” (Lie 2014, p.22) and arresting five of its members. When one, Xue Jinbo, turned up dead a few days later, the villagers expelled all government officials, put up blockades and took up arms. After ten days under siege, the government finally promised an investigation, an end to hostilities, and to hold local elections (Ho 2012, Jacobs 2011, Lie 2014, Lora-Wainwright 2014, Patience 2011).

Rural violence

In China, aggrieved citizens are increasingly voicing their discontent through public protest, sometimes resorting to violence to extract concessions from the government and as a last-ditch attempt to be heard when they feel they have no other options (Hui and Bao 2013, Lie 2014). The state typically responds in kind, as it does not appreciate threats to its monopoly on violence (Liu 2015) or appearing weak (Lie 2014). As millions of rural Chinese have become landless (He and Xue 2014), violent land disputes have become especially commonplace, with 65% of all ‘mass incidents’ between 2000 and 2010 rooted in conflicts over land expropriation (Liu 2015, p.50).

While the Wukan incident attracted headlines because of the drama that unfolded and its democratic conclusion, Wukan’s problems go far beyond one village. Physical violence in the countryside is outrageous enough to make the news (Nixon 2011), but it is just one symptom of the multi-faceted structural violence (Galtung 1969) directed at rural people – a system of everyday violence that exploits China’s enormous peasant population for the benefit of wealthier urbanites.

Eventful violence

The invisibility of this violence is the result of a narrow conception of what ‘violence’ is. The scope of what is designated to be violent is normally limited to what Galtung (1969) refers to as “personal” or “direct” violence (p.170), with easily-defined perpetrators and victims, in the form of immediate, intentional, temporally-limited actions directed at bodies or property. Circumscribing violence in this way allows an enormous amount of suffering to go undetected. As Galtung defines it:

“Violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations.” (1969, p.168)

While the violence of Wukan is newsworthy because of the shocking damage to bodies and property, the discrepancy between villagers’ actual and potential life outcomes had already entered the spectrum of violence well before the showdown occurred. This is the result of structures and a culture of violence deeply embedded within the state, the economy and Chinese society (He and Xue 2014, Sargeson 2013). What made Wukan an ‘incident’ was not its violence per se, but its eventfulness. While conventional violence is “a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is event focused, time bound, and body bound” (Nixon 2011, p.3, emphasis added), structural violence “is a process” (Galtung 1990, p.295) that encompasses much more. The processual violences that together represent a violent circumscription of life chances are challenging to represent (and thus confront) because they do not fit the profile of a reportable violent event – they are “slow” (Nixon 2011, p.6), banal and often imperceptible (Sargeson 2013).

Violence and development

This destruction of life chances as a form of rural development is supposed to benefit all, rural Chinese included. By replacing small-scale farming with industrial agriculture, yields can be improved, increasing rural incomes and urban food security (Hui and Bao 2015). Furthermore, farmers are freed from their fields to claim urban benefits such as higher wages (receiving urban hukous as compensation for expropriated land) (Siciliano 2012).

In practice, however, rural development is less of a win-win. Even when the newly-landless get the payments and urban hukous they are entitled to, their economic outlook is grim: up to a third of working-age villagers whose land was expropriated are unable to find steady work (He and Xue 2014, p.S127). While rural livelihoods are compromised, urban livelihoods are bolstered – land alienation increases the supply of unskilled labour and land needed for tasks like building new tower blocks and factories (and then filling them with migrant workers), benefitting businesses owned and run by urbanites and wider urban economies (Pun and Lu 2010).

As rural economies shrink under the pressure of land grabs and tactical neglect to ensure compliance with expropriation by local governments, younger residents migrate to cities in search of work (Sargeson 2013). This is often aided by migrant labour subcontractors, who use their social networks in their home villages to recruit workers for urban construction projects (Pun and Lu 2010). The outflow of young people from the countryside to urban factories and construction sites permanently damages the established social organisation in villages, especially when migrants’ absence is made permanent by land grabs, leaving them with no home or job to return to. The result is alienation, dislocation and lost dignity as villagers become dependent on low status, poorly paid urban jobs to support family still in the village (He and Xue 2014, Sargeson 2013). Furthermore, poor working conditions and the widespread practice of withholding income from labourers lead not only to frequently-violent collective action in cities (including threats of suicide), but also tension in the village social networks that were used to recruit the labourers in the first place (Pun and Lu 2010).

Uneven development

The embedding of anti-rural structures of violence into Chinese economics, governance and culture is intimately linked to China’s capitalist, developmental turn and its associated rhetoric. This developmental discourse marginalises rural areas in a number of ways. Economic concerns have been elevated above social equity (particularly in terms of the distribution of wealth between urban and rural hukou-holders), protecting the environment (and the resources that “ecosystem people” (Nixon 2011, p.22) rely on) and individual rights (the legal and bureaucratic resources rural people need to protect themselves from predation and marginalisation) (He and Xue 2014). Furthermore, the social safety net that would have once served to soften the blow of China’s economic transition has itself suffered under the logic of efficiency (Liu 2015). The result of this political and cultural preoccupation with growth to the exclusion of all other concerns has been the “conscious promulgation of uneven development” (Liu 2015, p.49) within China’s borders and the hollowing out of rural culture and sociality (He and Xue 2014).

The factors that have led to anti-rural uneven development in China may not individually be consciously anti-rural. However, taken together, their effect is to provide inexpensive land and labour to the ‘efficient’ cities based on the destruction of rural livelihoods by making rural self-sufficiency impossible. This need not be a conspiracy – unintended outcomes have proven beneficial for those who are most empowered to perpetuate them, and have thus become entrenched (Liu 2015). The result is violent regardless of the intent or even existence of coherent victimising actors (Galtung 1969).


Galtung, J. (1969) Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6 (3), 167-191.

Galtung, J. (1990) Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27 (3), 291-305.

He, S. and Xue D. (2014) Identity Building and Communal Resistance against Landgrabs in Wukan Village, China. Current Anthropology, 55 (S9), S126-S137.

Ho, A. (2012) Wukan election sets precedent for grassroots democracy in China. Available at: <http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2012/03/03/wukan_election_sets_precedent_for_grassroots_democracy_in_china.html&gt; [Accessed on 25 April 2015]

Hui, E. C. M. and Bao, H. (2013) The logic behind conflicts in land acquisitions in contemporary China: A framework based upon game theory. Land Use Policy, 30, 373-380.

Jacobs, A. (2011) Village Revolts Over Inequities of Chinese Life. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/world/asia/chinese-village-locked-in-rebellion-against-authorities.html&gt; [Accessed on 25 April 2015]

Lie, A. C. (2014) Rethinking rural resistance in China: A Case Study of the 2011 Wukan Incident in Guangdong province. M.A. University of Oslo. Available at: <http://urn.nb.no/URN:NBN:no-45469&gt; [Accessed on 17 April 2015]

Liu, L. (2015) Capitalist Reform, the Dismantling of the Iron Rice Bowl and Land Expropriation in China: A Theory of Primitive Accumulation and State Power. Sociology Mind, 5, 41-60.

Lora-Wainwright, A. (2014) Grassroots reactions to relocation: The diffusion of compensation strategies. In: J. C. Teets and W. Hurst, eds. Local Governance Innovation in China: Experimentation, Diffusion, and Defiance. Abingdon, Routledge, 42-59.

Patience, M. (2014) China’s Wukan village stands up for land rights. Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-16205654&gt; [Accessed on 25 April 2015]

Nixon, R. (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pun, N. and Lu, H. (2010) A Culture of Violence: The Labor Subcontracting System and Collective Action by Construction Workers in Post-Socialist China. The China Journal, 64, 143-158.

Sargeson, S. (2013) Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40 (6), 1063-1085.

Siciliano, G. (2012) Rural-Urban Migration and Domestic Land Grabbing in China: Drivers, Impacts and Trade-offs. In: Land Deal Politics Initiative, Global Land Grabbing II. Ithaca, NY, 17-19 October 2012. Cornell University.

Further reading about violence

Anguelovski, I. and Alier, J. M. (2014) The ‘Environmentalism of the Poor’ revisited: Territory and place in disconnected global struggles. Ecological Economics, 102, 167-176.

Escobar, A. (2004) Development, Violence and the New Imperial Order. Development, 47 (1), 15-21.

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