Argument

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 budgetofchina.com. 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?

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Beijing Forever

In China's pulsing capital, change is the only constant.

For an exclusive interview with Ai Weiwei, click here. 

Beijing, as most Chinese know it, was a neglected relic after the Japanese occupation of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, when the victorious communists moved the capital back there from Nanjing, it was a bankrupt town of 1.4 million people; almost nothing of any consequence was made or manufactured there. But the path to the shining communist future lay through industry, at least according to the Soviets, who had already put a quarter of Muscovites to work in new factories, and from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong called for an "ocean of smokestacks" to rise over Beijing's traditional skyline of one-story courtyards.

And rise they did. From 1955, when Soviet advisors arrived to reshape the capital into an industrial base, to the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping's market reforms took hold, Beijing was home to 149 of China's 164 types of industry. Fourteen thousand smokestacks punctuated the skyline, proclaiming the city as the country's largest petrochemical base; the leading producer of rubber products, plastic, and refrigerators; second in pig iron and washing machines; third in power generators, wool cloth, cars, and color televisions; fourth in internal combustion engines; and fifth in sewing machines and beer.

Deng authorized the creation of a private housing market in 1980, and as China's economy shifted from planned to market, so did Beijing's. Among all Chinese cities, finance accounts for the highest percentage of GDP here (13.8 percent in 2010), as the service (and, increasingly, high-tech) sector now makes up nearly three-quarters of Beijing's revenue. It trails only Tokyo in the number of Fortune Global 500 companies that call it home.

A saying from the time of the planned economy held that it was best to move to Beijing "because that's where Mao lives," making it the vanguard of, well, everything. These days, thousands still come each year, migrating to cash in on, or physically construct, the boom. The population, which spiked after Beijing was reinstated as the capital, continues to expand -- up nearly 20 percent in the past five years alone, pushing the city outward to a series of six concentric beltways ("ring roads") and giving it the appearance, locals say, of a blob of spreading pancake batter.

Spend some time on the griddle, amid the traffic, dust storms, and inefficiencies, and it's obvious why Beijingers are renowned for their creative vulgarities -- and also, given its disparate district governments, why the city seems to be competing against itself by building two business districts, multiple pedestrian "ancient" shopping streets, and 38 golf courses. But despite its enormous geographic size -- at 6,000 square miles, Beijing is larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut -- the city's official population of some 20 million is mostly crammed into a core that gives it a population density twice that of New York, its sister city to which it's often compared.

Like New York, Beijing flaunts itself as a national cultural center; also like New York, the city's history is one of unending dynamism. In Beijing, the cycle has churned for nearly nine centuries, as the city passed through the hands of Mongol, Chinese, and Manchu dynasties, republicans, warlords, Japanese occupiers, and communist liberators, and saw several name changes, including "Peking," abandoned in 1975 when a new system of Romanizing Chinese was introduced. Many Beijingers are quick to boast that their city's history stretches back half a million years to the time of Homo erectus, whose remains were found in the area beginning in 1921 -- Peking Man. Typically for a city in constant change, his bones have gone missing, and a museum displaying the capital's Paleolithic era sits in the basement of a glitzy mall downtown, where a guide bubbles, "Even 25,000 years ago, people liked shopping here!"

Her enthusiasm is contagious. For a generation born after the bloody end to the protests in the city's vast Tiananmen Square, Beijing is the center of the universe: government, media, education, the arts, transportation. Even Mandarin, China's official language, has its roots in the region (though Beijingers, stubborn as New Yorkers, proudly slurp their sentences in a soupy, r-laden dialect). China's clocks are set to Beijing time. Since its inception, the place has been a magnet for migrants, merchants, scholars, and explorers, including Marco Polo, who, in the 13th century, marveled that "the whole interior of the city is laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterly precision that no description can do justice to it."

Remnants of the board remain in Beijing's Old City, whose 25 square miles are roughly on par with Manhattan and where the narrow lanes called hutong still stand, lined by gray-walled, single-story courtyard homes whose tiled roofs need weeding. For centuries the hutong characterized the city's culture; the capital's rigid grid still has locals saying turn north, south, east, and west instead of left and right, even though today fewer than one-eighth of the lanes remain.

But Beijing the city is often overlooked and overwhelmed by Beijing the capital; after all, it has been the seat of national power for all but a handful of the past thousand years. Hence the architectural marvels, the engineering feats, the set-piece extravaganzas like the 2008 Olympics.

Yet for all that, Beijing is not quite a city as Westerners understand it. In 1962, a visiting journalist dubbed the place "the biggest village ever," and for locals -- despite having the world's second-busiest airport, nearly 100 Starbucks, and a new subway system that, at last, covers more than the city's core -- it feels that way still. Beijingers still identify themselves by the district or lane where they grew up. Those roots run deep, the way they do in other global villages.

Beijing's most ubiquitous beverage is a beer named Yanjing ("Swallow Capital," from an ancient city name). It's made in town at a brewery owned partly by the municipal government, long reliant on ex-cons to deliver the green 20-ounce bottles on flatbed bicycles as a form of work rehabilitation. The city's most popular daily tabloid -- the Evening News, circulation 1.2 million -- reads like the sort of small-town American paper that runs the drunk-driving arrests and fishing forecast. Sold from newsstands and by roving carriers who bellow its name over the drone of pet pigeons released for their afternoon laps, the Evening News gives the day's date according to the lunar calendar, tells you if tomorrow's weather will be suitable for washing clothes or airing out the house, and runs graphic photos of suicides, knife attacks, heists, and missing people (and, increasingly common, dogs) in between advertising inserts for weight-loss clinics and virility supplements that allow you to "reach fulfillment every time." It even once mistakenly ran an item from the American satirical newspaper the Onion, reporting that members of the U.S. Congress had demanded a new Capitol with a retractable roof, more concession stands, and expanded parking. In its correction, the Evening News wrote, "Some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money."

Unlike London, Paris, and Tokyo, Beijing the capital no longer strives to be everything at once, as it did in Mao's time. Banks may have their headquarters here, but Shanghai and Shenzhen have the stock markets, and Hong Kong remains the window to international finance. The most famous universities call Beijing home, but their equals exist in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and, increasingly, second-tier cities like Wuhan. Gone are the smokestacks; manufacturing and mines were shuttered or moved to surrounding Hebei province in the run-up to the Olympics -- an anti-pollution measure whose effectiveness is eroded by the ever rising tide of automobiles on the capital's gridlocked streets.

Even as a cultural capital, Beijing falls short. Travelers in China will note that in terms of popularity, Beijing's cuisine takes a back seat to Chengdu's spicy Sichuan fare and Harbin's dumplings. Chinese identify Dalian and Suzhou as the home of fashion and beauty, and coastal Qingdao and Xiamen as the best environments in which to live. The best modern novels and films aren't set here -- the city's most famous work of fiction details the life of a 1930s rickshaw puller that ends so devastatingly that the American translator changed its ending to a happy one without telling the author. And Beijing's best contemporary film, Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool, was pulled from its screening at the Cannes film festival by Chinese censors; Zhang was given no explanation, he says. He would go on to direct the Olympics' opening ceremony at the Bird's Nest stadium, designed in part by Beijing artist Ai Weiwei, who has never been inside, dismissing it as "propaganda."

And yet: It's Beijing. First a capital in ancient times, it's home to the still-serene Temple of Heaven, to gated villa communities named Upper East Side and Merlin Champagne Town, to the world's largest duck restaurant, to a chain of lakes at the city's heart lined with cacophonous bars and quiet cafes, to the hub of high-speed trains linking the country, and to migrants who make up an estimated 40 percent of its workforce, building high-rises behind billboards that say, "One pinch of soil is one pinch of gold."

Unlike Shanghai, Beijing was not a port connecting China to the outside world. It was designed to be a seat of power, strategically located to keep the northern barbarians at bay and dampen the south's influence over the empire. (The city still feels like a garrison: In addition to the 165 embassies, plus the municipal, district, and neighborhood government offices, all the country's national ministries and Communist Party branches are headquartered here, along with the largest of China's seven military regions -- an estimated 300,000 soldiers charged with defending the capital, as well as the country's borders with Mongolia and Russia.) Shanghai has more people and a larger economy; for all its growth, Beijing's GDP lags behind Moscow's and Sao Paulo's. Shanghai even has claim to "redder" roots, as the site of the meeting, in 1921, of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

But Shanghai was not the land of dragons, as legend holds Beijing was, nor was it designed to resemble the shape of the prince who subdued the Dragon King after fighting him nine times a day for nine days. Shanghai was not once named the Swallow Capital, as Beijing was, nor was it the seat of Kublai Khan. Shanghai never had a magnificent palace, never mind one built when Versailles was a mere shooting lodge, and it was not the place where Manchu rulers built pleasure gardens and temples and mosques and cathedrals to showcase their empire. Nor did Shanghai see a battalion of Soviet engineers and architects arrive to erase the city's feudal features and redraw them as a worker's paradise, or reverse course again and tear down the smokestacks, rebuild portions of the city's wall, and restore imperial-era parks.

For the last decade, Beijing the village has globalized, as capitals of rising countries do. Across Tiananmen Square, 72 miles from the Great Wall that marks the city's far border, that change looks like this: an optimistic banner I saw a few years ago, draped over a building's rubble, that read:

(The ancient capital reappears.) 

At least it did, until one night, when an anonymous hand neatly excised part of the second character, so that the slogan became:

(Farewell, ancient capital.) 

Passers-by note that both slogans hold true; Beijing is once again looping through an 800-year cycle of rebuilding and renewal. The altered sign was pulled down within hours, but no matter: Beijingers don't need to read it. They see it every day.

Jonathan Browning