Last week, Wang Yang, the reformist Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, sent a farewell letter thanking the netizens of Guangdong for their support and understanding, as it was announced that he will be replaced by rising CCP star and previous cultivator of an awesome mustache, Hu Chunhua.
Wang, something of an opposite pole to the now disgraced Bo Xilai, oversaw the creation of what some term the Guangdong model and, as I have written previously, this more liberal model of governance seems the most likely path forward if China is indeed going to liberalize. In the best-known example of Mr. Wang's liberality, the coastal Guangdong village of Wukan was allowed to hold a relatively free and fair election by secret ballot, a remarkable event in the People's Republic of China. This was the result of protests that ejected party leaders from the village, which in turn was prompted by land expropriation and the death of a protest leader in police custody. That the government of Guangdong was willing to make such concessions is particularly notable when one considers that similar standoffs by Yuntang Village in Jiangxi in 2001 and Daqiu Village in Tianjin in 1992 ended abruptly with the arrival of paramilitary troops.
Guangdong reformism was also evident when 2010 strikes at a Honda plant in Foshan were met with a similar degree of leniency; striking workers received 30 to 40 percent pay raises and their leaders, atypically, escaped punishment. Additionally, under Wang's watch, "Guangdong has loosened controls on eight categories of NGOs, allowing them to register without a 'patron' government agency."
This style of reform is necessary if China is truly going to liberalize and we at the University of Louisville's Center for Asian Democracy (CAD) were disappointed to see that Wang himself was not appointed to the politburo standing committee in November. Though it is impossible to be sure, this was probably because his reformist image did not go over well with the retired but still influential Jiang Zemin and other Party conservatives. Wang came from a poor rural family in eastern Anhui province and dropped out of school to work in a food factory at 17. This background contrasts with many of China's ruling elite, three or four of the new members of the politburo standing committee, the apex of political power in China, are princelings, sons (no daughters yet) of high ranking communist officials. Nevertheless, Jianwei Wang, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, reminds us that "Wang is a Chinese Communist Party official. He's not a Western liberal." Indeed, a number of reporters that followed Wang's call to expose the problem of pirated goods in Guangdong found their stories scuppered or even lost their jobs.
Additionally, there have been a few hopeful signs that even without Wang on the standing committee, the new leadership is turning out to be more liberal than the old one. Earlier in December, a Beijing detention center infamous for holding people that traveled to Beijing to petition the government released thousands of prisoners and 10 "employees" of a local government were sentenced to up to 18 months in jail for illegally detaining such petitioners. Although it probably had little to do with the new politburo, Chinese Central Television recently aired V for Vendetta, allowing the Chinese to root for a rebel battling a totalitarian government and encouraging people to rule themselves. A few meager data points do not make a trend, but so far Xi Jinping's ascendance does not seem to be accompanied by the kind of crackdown that came at the beginning of Hu Jintao's reign.
At any rate, CAD wishes Wang Yang the best as he moves on to his new role, perhaps as vice-premier, and hopes that he will prove an influential and substantial reformer. China could certainly use one.