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.