BEIJING, China — In the closing weeks of 2011, a Chinese Communist Party chief in the wealthy southern province of Guangdong positioned himself as a white knight, championing the much-maligned little guy.
Wang Yang sided with the some 20,000 villagers in Wukan, protesting against local land grabs by village leaders.
The provincial leader not only dispatched his deputy to the troubled village to help bring an end to a seige of a farming village. He also asserted the villagers grievances were just. He rubbed the local party cadres' noses in the mud that they sought to turn into a big-bucks real estate development.
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It just so happens Wang Yang is believed to be on the short-list to join the cozy, all-powerful Politburo standing committee in 2012, the year China will have an unprecedented turnover of leadership. Of the nine seats on this committee that runs the country, seven will be filled with new faces.
So, is 2011 going down in the annals as the year "people power" went mainstream in China?
Hardly, says China watcher Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"In China there are protests almost every day. Leaders in different provinces have their own ways of sorting them out. At this stage the predominant tactic in Beijing as well as in provinces is still to use top heavy crackdowns."
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But Lam says Wang Yang's PR-savvy response is a new trend among up-and-coming leaders of the Communist Party.
Simply put, in Beijng, populism — better associated with US political grandstanding than Communist tactics — is gaining popularity.
"Wang Yang is a good public relations person," says Lam. "For the past four years he has been trying to project the image of a reformer, a person with a new way of thinking. Apparently he thought the conciliatory approach would help his image."
And this does have long-term implications. Top authorities are monitoring public opinion more closely, and diverse interest groups are speaking more loudly to make their voices heard. Authorities are making a bigger effort to publicly demonstrate they care.
It's become de rigeur for top leaders to show up at the site of national tragedies, like last summer's high-speed train accident, which killed 40 according to official media. Many legislators and government offices have launched microblogging accounts to reach out directly to the people, or "netizens," as the chattering online population is dubbed.
Ironically, sometimes to the chagrin of foreign diplomats, in recent years Chinese diplomats have started defending policies unpopular with their overseas counterparts by saying they are responding to Chinese online opinion.
"The role of public opinion is becoming greater in China ... in fact a new Chinese society is emerging,” David Lampton, director of China studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, said in a video interview by the US China Policy Foundation.
Guangdong's Wang Yang, 56, is among those on the forefront of ushering in this new society.
Since becoming Guangdong party leader in 2007, Wang Yang has favored the carrot over the stick in sorting out disputes in the province, known for being the heart of manufacturing in China. In response to factory strikes, he has encouraged collective bargaining by official government-backed trade unions over intimidation of workers or dispatching thugs with truncheons.
He's made it easier to register independent civic groups — usually viewed with suspicion by the Communist apparatus. And he's pushed for greater openness and accountability, for example by making public more government budgets.
The situation at Wukan suggests, however, that the best way to work the greater openness is to make lots of noise and win sympathy from netizens.
Afterall, Wang Yang's team had ample time to intervene prior to the headline-grabbing protests in December.
The Wukan protests date back to September, when villagers became aware the village committee sold farmland without informing them or providing adequate compensation.
Tensions escalated dramatically after authorities detained five of the protest leaders and, on Dec. 11, one died in police custody. Villagers evicted local government officials and police, and blocked roads so they couldn’t return. In return, authorities laid siege on the village, stopping food supplies. Foreign media started arriving.
College students far away learned that if they checked on the internet regularly, they could catch news before censors could delete it.
So by the time Wang Yang dispatched his subordinate to investigate, the issue was in the global spotlight.
"By initially using a harsh approach against protest leaders the authorities were attempting to intimidate protesters in the hope of dispersing the unrest," said political analyst John Lee, an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney.
"This can obviously backfire when the protests reach a significant size and prominence, as occurred in Wukan."
So, Lee says, provincial authorities made a tactical decision. They dropped the stick and picked up the carrot, earning some public relations points in the process.
In democracies the court system would help sort out such disputes. Too often this doesn't work in China, as court appointments are too closely linked with only party in town, the Communists. Hence, many farmers still put their hope in the white knight — or benevolent mandarin (or bureaucrat in imperial times) approach. The belief dates back to imperial times that if one can catch the attention of the fair-minded and just mandarins, they will surely prevail over local corrupt officers.
The risk with the stick-then-carrot approach is it could encourage other protesters to make more noise.
There is no shortage of ordinary folk with grievances. Some Chinese experts estimate over the past decade 40 million households have been inadequately compensated after their land was taken by local officials in cahoots with developers.
The nation is mottled with pollution sites, also a major catalyst for protests.
The biggest concern for the Chinese Communist Party as it heads into the year of big changes in leadership, is whether the locus of unrest will shift to urban areas.
"For industrializing societies such as China, unrest in urban areas is far more dangerous to political stability because unrest involving urban elites is far more likely to lead to coordinated demands for political reforms or change," said Lee.
"It is much more difficult to suppress or silence unhappy urban elites than it is rural citizens."
He says for China's ruling elite, keeping a lid on unemployment and inflation are key to a happy new year.