"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.