By Sui-Lee Wee and James Pomfret
GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Wang Yang, Communist Party chief of China's southern Guangdong province and seen by many in the West as a beacon of political reform, encouraged journalists earlier this year to expose the problem of pirated goods - part of his "Three Strikes" campaign against those hawking fake products.
But several reporters who heeded his call were sacked. Others had their stories killed.
The pattern, a familiar one in Guangdong, is a reminder of the limits of reform in China. A close look at Wang's record - he's a serious contender for promotion to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee - illustrates the dilemma facing reformist leaders inside China's political system.
Wang, 57, began with a genuine zeal for reform in China's richest and most liberal province. Concerned that society had not kept up with three decades of blistering economic change, he lobbied for social and political reform, but this has made him vulnerable to a conservative backlash, and pushed him back to a more familiar method of control and punishment.
"People say he'll be the new Wen Jiabao in the new Party leadership," said Jianwei Wang, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, referencing the current premier, whose calls for substantive political reforms have largely been ignored.
"(But) you have to remember Wang is a Chinese Communist Party official. He's not a Western liberal."
Wang earned praise for his deft handling of a potentially violent land dispute in the coastal village of Wukan last year, but interviews with current and former journalists and labor rights activists in Guangdong show many feel he has presided over a harsh crackdown on parts of society the Communist Party typically sees as a direct challenge to its rule.
Ultimately, observers say Wang's experience underscores the difficulties of any Mikhail Gorbachev-like figure breaking free of the confines of China's rigid political structure.
"In this country and in this regime, there are no real reformers," a former editor of the Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper said. "Everything is just for show."
Born into a poor rural family in eastern Anhui province, Wang dropped out of high school to help support his family after his father died, going to work in a food factory aged 17; experiences likely to have shaped his desire for more socially inclusive policies, including a push to engender a "Happy Guangdong" model of development to improve peoples' lives.
As with Wen, Wang's humble upbringing contrasts with the so-called "princelings" or privileged offspring of former Chinese Communist leaders or military top brass, including ousted party heavyweight Bo Xilai and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping.
"That's very important," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington. "This is the difference between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in terms of background."
In 1979, Wang studied political economy at the Central Party School, according to a biography of him by Hong Kong's Mirror Books published in 2009. From there, his rise was swift. In 1982, he was named propaganda chief of the Communist Youth League, President Hu Jintao's power base, in Anhui. When Wen became premier, he appointed Wang as deputy secretary general of the State Council, China's cabinet. In 2005, Wang was appointed party chief of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, and, two years later, of Guangdong, China's most populous province with a population of 104 million.
During his term, Wang held regular sessions with a group of scholars to discuss reform, said Xiao Bin, a professor of government at Guangzhou's Sun Yat-sen University, who attended two sessions. Wang made Guangdong cadres set aside a day just to read books such as Thomas Friedman's take on globalization, "The World Is Flat", Xiao said.
CHANGING THE BIRDS
Politically, Wang - whose graying hair and straight-talking manner stand him apart from the many apparatchiks who dye their hair black to appear young - succeeded in reducing the number of government departments in some areas, but stumbled in his push for the direct election of officials in Shenzhen and a more independent judiciary. Xiao said Beijing was not enthusiastic about the political reforms.
"Up to now, Wang Yang hasn't been able to achieve anything," said Hao Wenyuan, a former Guangdong official. "Nobody can break through the entrenched interests."
While Guangdong's economy has doubled under Wang - gross domestic product of 5.3 trillion yuan ($840 billion) matches that of Indonesia - not all his economic reforms have been successful. The province's growth slowed to 7.4 percent in January-June, one of its weakest periods in a decade.
Known in Chinese as "cleaning the birdcage to change the birds", Wang sought to replace Guangdong's low-end factories with high-tech industries. But, amid a spawning of projects and policies to accommodate his vision in factory towns across the Pearl River Delta, places like the Changping Innovation and Technology Center in the gritty manufacturing hub of Dongguan remain half empty nearly four years after opening.
"I think the direction was good but instead of driving all those labor intensive factories out in a short period, they should have made some longer-term planning by giving better incentives to high-technology people," said a foreign businessman running a factory in Changping.
Wang's strength is his ability to appear open to the people of Guangdong, which absorbs its liberal ethos from neighboring Hong Kong, the freewheeling former British colony, said rights activist Guo Feixiong, who was jailed for five years in 2007 on charges of illegal business activities. "The fact he didn't arrest anyone involved in Wukan and allowed elections demonstrate that he's enlightened," said Guo.
"I suspect people like Wang Yang are reformers in the sense that they believe the system as it stands now is not sustainable and needs urgent change, but ... those changes come in terms of making sure the economic system reduces inequality and provides more Chinese a chance to take a piece of the economic pie," said Rana Mitter, a Chinese politics professor at Oxford University.
MEDIA, LABOUR CRACKDOWN
Two current and former journalists at the Nanfang Group, which owns some of China's boldest publications, said they received "clear instructions" and "requirements" that reporters should not write articles that would "hinder Wang Yang's prospects". These include stories on Guangdong's social ills such as explosions, piracy and "mass incidents" - a euphemism for street protests - according to the journalists, though they say none of these instructions were formally delivered by Wang himself. One recent story journalists were barred from writing was on a Guangzhou-based official who had abused a flight attendant, according to several people familiar with the matter.
"He (Wang) instituted some reforms, but ... (these) are possibly just to meet his needs and are not for the good of everyone," said a former Southern Metropolitan columnist.
Three journalists from different publications say Wang did allow the Guangdong media to write critical reports - up to a point. "... but resistance was very large," said one former Southern Weekly columnist. "After he announced that the Guangdong media can criticize Guangdong, it was less than a month before he took it back. The internal negative repercussions were too much."
Viewed warily by conservatives, Wang was made a scapegoat in a campaign by hardliners against the Nanfang Group, which had embarrassed some officials with critical stories on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the former columnist said. The hardliners attacked the publishing house, and Wang, calling them "traitors, anti-party and anti-China" on the Internet.
DRAWING A LINE
This year's clampdown on labor groups has raised questions about how sincere Wang is on social reform. A line appears to have been drawn between tolerating workers' specific demands and organized dissent by labor groups.
Last year, Guangdong issued groundbreaking rules making it easier for NGOs to register with the civil affairs authorities without the backing of a government agency. Within a year, though, eight NGOs that fight for the rights of migrant workers in Shenzhen were forced out of their premises. As provincial chief, Wang bears responsibility for the crackdown, said Zhang Zhiru, director of the Shenzhen Spring Breeze Labour Disputes Service Centre.
Chinese labour rights groups are often harassed by the government, which fears they could organize strikes and trigger social unrest. Interviews with six labour activists show that this time, the scale of the crackdown is unprecedented.
In February, Zhang's landlord told him he was under pressure from the authorities to evict his group. 'How can you rent your place to someone who wants to go against the government?', the landlord was told, according to Zhang. Previous Guangdong party boss Zhang Dejiang had told Shenzhen leaders to encourage the development of labour rights groups, which discussed cooperation with the official union. All that stopped when Wang arrived.
"It can be said that after Wang Yang came, the situation really deteriorated," said Zhang, the labour activist. "In my mind, Wang Yang is neither a reformer nor is he a liberal."
($1 = 6.3093 Chinese yuan) (Additional reporting by Hui Li, Chris Buckley, Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)