Mr. Happy

Wang Yang is the great hope of China's urban intelligentsia. Is he about to make the big time?


When Guangdong Communist Party boss Wang Yang wanted to suggest some political readings for his underlings last year, he shunned Mao, Confucius, and other Chinese sages in favor of bestselling Israeli author Tal Ben-Shahar. The title he recommended was Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. And Wang did not stop with a few musings on the benefits of positive psychology. Instead, he has made happiness a central part of the next five-year plan for Guangdong, the freewheeling province in southern China whose official slogan is now "Happy Guangdong."

"It is the people’s right to pursue happiness," Wang told a party congress this year, mixing Ben-Shahar’s pop philosophy with a liberal dose of the Declaration of Independence. "We should eradicate the wrong concept that happiness is a benevolent gift from the party and the government."

The happiness craze is not an isolated incident. Since he took over as party secretary in 2007, Wang has encouraged a series of experiments that have tested the relationship between the state and citizen in China. In the process, he has also transformed the role in national life played by Guangdong, which is both China’s most populous province, with some 110 million inhabitants, and the one with the biggest economy. Guangzhou, the capital, and tech workhorse Shenzhen are internationally known urban centers, but the province also includes less well-known industrial powerhouses such as Foshan and Dongguan.

For three decades, Guangdong has reveled in its position at the forefront of China’s economic reforms. Yet with its economy faltering and the province going through something of an identity crisis, Guangdong is now carving out a different role as a laboratory for urban political reform. Some of Wang’s supporters even talk about a "Guangdong model." That may or may not come to pass, but there’s no doubt Wang, in raising such pointed questions about the role of the Communist Party in modern Chinese life, has become a rare standard-bearer for political reform among China’s deeply cautious elite.

To be sure, this is political reform within the context of a control-freak Chinese Communist Party that maintains an iron grip on political power. But Wang’s Guangdong experiments are gaining publicity at a crucial time. In the autumn, China will officially begin a once-in-a-decade political transition that will see a new generation of leaders start to take power. Wang, 57, is one of the top candidates to win a seat on the all-powerful, nine-person Politburo Standing Committee. If he gets the promotion, he could gain a platform to push some of these ideas at a national level.

In some respects, Wang is the product of the unique region he runs. Guangdong, 1,300 miles from the seat of power, has long cultivated a self-image that mixes a hint of the disreputable with a flair for resisting the rules set in Beijing. Residents like to say that if a traffic light is green, Guangdong people drive ahead; if it is yellow, they proceed even more quickly; and if the light is red, they find a way around. The Cantonese, as they are known, view northern Chinese as earnest and safe; northerners think the Cantonese too clever by half.

In the years following Mao Zedong’s death, Guangdong was the testing ground for some of the economic ideas that have transformed China. The first special economic zone was famously created in 1980 in Shenzhen, the former fishing village near Hong Kong that is now a 14-million-person metropolis. And it was to Guangdong that Deng Xiaoping traveled for his 1992 "Southern Tour" when he realized that the conservative backlash after the Tiananmen Square massacre was stifling his pro-market agenda. Under the guise of a family vacation, he quietly urged officials across the region to embrace reforms. Even though his visit was officially a secret, he was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers at Shenzhen’s World Trade Center, the 53-story tower with a revolving restaurant that dominated what was then one of China’s few dramatic skylines.

Under Wang, Guangdong’s urge to test the boundaries has taken on a more overtly political nature. His biggest test came at the end of last year when thousands of villagers in Wukan physically ejected local party bosses who had illegally sold off communal land to developers, turning the small town into a symbol of rural activism. A tense, 10-day standoff riveted the world’s media and seemed certain to end in violence. Instead of cracking down, Wang put his career on the line by sending in a delegation of senior officials to broker a truce. His team then accused the two party officials in the village of corruption and organized new elections to replace them.

"People’s democratic awareness is increasing significantly in this changing society," Wang said after the standoff was resolved. "When their appeals for rights aren’t getting enough attention, that’s when mass incidents" — China’s euphemism for protests — "happen." Liberal intellectuals hailed his efforts as a possible model for a more democratic China. Wang Zhanyang, director of the political science department at the Central Institute of Socialism in Beijing, called the Wukan case a "model and forerunner of national significance." The provincial government’s attitude, he said, could be "a new light for the establishment of grassroots democracy."

Less dramatic but just as significant was party boss Wang’s response to a wave of industrial unrest in 2010. Starting at a Foshan plant that makes parts for Honda, some 200 disputes broke out across the region, led by a younger generation of migrant workers who wanted higher wages and were far less deferential about confronting their bosses. Disputes often end in China with the protesters bought off and the ringleaders rounded up once tempers have calmed. In this case, however, Wang urged the state-controlled trade union to do a better job defending the rights of its members. He also pushed for greater use of collective bargaining, which most officials shun as an excuse for labor activism. "The ’80s and ’90s generation workers need more care and respect and need to be motivated to work with enthusiasm," Wang said at the time, a striking recognition of the changing political demands among younger Chinese.

He has also given nongovernmental groups more freedom to operate in Guangdong than they have anywhere else in China, and some have scored successes not just with social causes but even in pushing local governments to be more open and accountable, long a taboo to the heavy-handed Communist Party.

Consider the experience of Wu Junliang, who decided he wanted to know more about how his tax money was being spent after returning home to Guangdong from two decades in the United States. In his spare time he set up a website about public finances called Wu lobbied dozens of local governments across China to publish their annual budgets, with no success. Then in 2008, Shenzhen allowed him to look at its books, even if the city would not publish them. Eighteen months later, the provincial capital, Guangzhou, went one better: It put the budget plans for all its 114 departments online. Unremarkable in most parts of the world, this could be one of those small time bombs that eventually transform the way China is run. "It was very exciting, like getting your sight back," Wu told me.

WANG’S EARLY CAREER might not seem like the obvious preparation to be one of the Communist Party’s main proponents of political reform. Born in 1955 in a small town in Anhui, one of China’s poorest provinces, he took his first job in a food-processing factory and spent much of the 1980s as a regional sports administrator. He soon, however, started to move swiftly up the ranks of the Anhui party apparatus, winning the nickname "Little Marshal" along the way. According to a highly flattering profile on the People’s Daily website, Deng stopped off in Anhui on his way back from his 1992 Southern Tour. One of the promising young officials he asked to meet was Wang.

Wang is too careful to promote himself so brazenly, but his supporters in academia have over the last couple of years started to push the idea of a "Guangdong model," in deliberate contrast with the "Chongqing model" of Bo Xilai, another regional party boss who was on the shortlist for the Politburo’s Standing Committee until he was detained this year. Where Bo’s ideological manifesto emphasized state-owned companies, sweeping anti-corruption campaigns, and social equality, wrapped up in Maoist nostalgia, Wang’s approach suggests a more liberal way of running society. Xiao Bin, a professor of government at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, says that the Guangdong model is about strengthening the rule of law, making government more transparent, and encouraging stronger civil society. None of this makes Wang a supporter of Western multiparty democracy, but it does suggest the softer form of authoritarianism that you might find somewhere like Singapore.

Of course, such descriptions can be caricatures, leaving out as much as they include. Under Bo, Chongqing texted out Maoist slogans and encouraged public singing of old communist songs, but the city also pioneered auctions of rural land — part of a process of breaking up Mao-era planning controls that stop farmers from moving legally to cities — which many liberal academics in Guangdong would like to copy. And before he moved to Guangdong, Wang was in fact Bo’s predecessor in Chongqing, where he seemed happy enough with the city’s more statist development model. But his tenure in Guangdong is striking for the way his ideas have been framed, prompting an unusually public debate in China, pitting one vision of an all-powerful party that can still solve the country’s problems against another that seeks to create more space for the individual.

Wang may have made headlines for his political ideas, but his period in Guangdong has also coincided with a difficult time for the provincial economy. It grew 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, a snail’s pace compared with the supercharged (and overstated) growth rates that many Chinese provinces record. Having ridden China’s export boom for so long, Guangdong has struggled since the start of the global crisis.

Wang has tried to make a virtue of the downturn, using it to reform the structure of the economy. Policymakers know that the province’s manufacturers need to become more sophisticated, relying less on making things as cheaply as possible and more on developing their own products. Costs were already rising because of a stronger currency. Now, Wang has increased the pressure on local manufacturers by introducing tougher environmental rules and supporting faster wage increases.

The goal is not just to force industry to modernize, but also to make the province’s cities more attractive and prosperous places to live. Coastal Chinese regions now measure themselves on an ability to attract major research and development activities, and so far Guangdong has been losing out to Shanghai and Beijing, which boast China’s best universities. Guangdong hopes to attract urban professionals by offering cleaner air and more modern cities. If the strategy works, there will be long-run benefits, but it has also meant short-term pain. Many companies face the choice of moving inland to cheaper parts of China or transferring production abroad to places like Vietnam. Foxconn, the company that makes so many products for Apple, used to have 470,000 workers at its two Shenzhen factories. In the next couple of years, that figure is expected to drop to around 300,000.

The travails of Guangdong’s economy will be one of several factors that will decide whether Wang gets promoted to the Standing Committee in the autumn. As many as seven seats could be up for grabs this year, and the favorites include Wang Qishan, a vice premier who is in charge of the financial sector; Zhang Dejiang, another vice premier who was sent to Chongqing when Bo was sacked; and Li Yuanchao, who runs the Communist Party’s powerful Organization Department. Some of Wang’s liberal supporters grumble that as the decision nears, he has been trying to demonstrate a more ruthless streak, including tighter controls on Guangdong’s media and a less tolerant attitude toward protests. This is not a good time for a Chinese politician to look weak. At the moment, hardheaded political calculation is pushing out reformist zeal.

Given the political rivalry between Guangdong and Chongqing, Bo’s spectacular political fall has focused a lot of attention on Wang, but the scandal could work both ways for him. Bo’s disgrace has certainly boosted the credibility of the Guangdong model. At the same time, a promotion for Wang might be seen as too big a victory for the anti-Bo faction. Chinese leaders generally don’t preview their appointments for nosy Western reporters, who are rarely granted insights into their political calculations. But Wang’s fate will be an important barometer for which way China is headed. Bo’s way may already have been rejected. Will it now be Wang’s?

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