Vote In Small Chinese Village Holds Big Meaning

Mar 3, 2012

In southern China, a village that rebelled against corrupt Communist officials has elected the main protest leaders as its new village committee leaders. Reformers are hoping this could be a template for defusing unrest through grassroots democracy, but others say the experience of the rebellious village is unique.

With a flourish, polling opened at nine sharp at Wukan village school in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The national anthem rang out, and the villagers of Wukan stood respectfully for the raising of the national flag. Just three months ago, the streets here were festooned with banners calling for the downfall of corrupt officials, and rallies of thousands of people filled the square, chanting in unison.

Now the banners hanging from the buildings call for China's laws to be respected, and the villagers are voting for their new village committee leaders, filling out pink ballot forms in makeshift plywood voting booths. The committee has real powers, in that it controls local finances, and the sale and apportioning of collectively-owned village land.

"I'm 40 years old," says voter Huang Meizhi, beaming, "and I've never held a ballot in my hands before. Wukan has never had a proper election before."

Born From Rebellion

"We've never had such an open election," says Zhang Jiancheng, who is standing for election. "In the past, the elections from the preparation to the election, and the monitoring, all were already organized in backrooms."

This election is unusual in that it was born from a violent rebellion. But village elections in China are supposed to be exercises in grassroots democracy. The fact that these polls are gaining so much attention as a model of free and fair polls shows just how frequently the law is ignored. And even in this show election, there has been pressure on one particular candidate, 21-year-old Xue Jianwan.

This young schoolteacher is a symbol of the cost of rebellion; her father, Xue Jinbo, was a protest leader who died in police custody in December. This was after he was detained, with several other villagers, in connection with protests in September, during which cars and the police station were attacked. His death led to the furious demonstrations staged by villagers during the 10-day standoff in December, when they chased out Communist officials, and were blockaded into Wukan by paramilitary police.

Xue Jianwan is now standing for election against the wishes of some of her family, her employers, and local officials, who argue that those working for the state should not stand for office.

"I haven't solved the problem of pressure from my family, so my mood is rather heavy," she tells the crush of reporters who descend on her, as she walks home from the polling station. "If I want to be elected, then it seems I have to quit my job. So I'm very conflicted."

Wukan Fights Back

Yang Semao was a protest leader; he's just been elected deputy head of the village committee. He denies their methods were extreme.

"We had no other choice. No one paid any attention to petitions, so the people got furious and there was some violence," Yang says. "I don't think it should be considered extreme."

As the ballots are counted in Wukan, a new election remains a fantasy just down the road in Longtou, also known as Longguang. Here too villagers have been protesting against land seizures for years. But so far, the events in Wukan haven't helped them.

"Now we don't think Wukan will influence us that much," says one villager, who asked for his name not to be used. "The government has dealt with Wukan, but our situation is still messy, and they're not dealing with us."

Another resident makes it clear that the lesson they have learned from Wukon is strength in numbers, saying if the government doesn't pay attention, they'll form a coalition of seven or eight villages.

"We're talking about it now. Then we'd be tens of thousands of people."

A Struggle For Land

But the peaceful resolution of Wukan's rebellion draws on many factors, such as its geographical location close to Hong Kong with its freewheeling media, and in Guangdong, with a liberal party secretary, Wang Yang, who's hoping for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Strong clan structures within the village were a factor in uniting the village, and organizing the rebellion, meaning that its experience may not be easily copied elsewhere.

The fundamental problem remains rampant land seizures across China. A recent survey by the Seattle-based Landesa research group found 43 percent of Chinese villages surveyed reported land had been taken by the state for nonagricultural purposes. In one-fifth of cases, there was no compensation.

Kicking out the village leadership and electing new leaders doesn't necessarily address that problem. Xiao Shu, an outspoken intellectual who is also known as Chen Min, believes real land reform is needed.

"I think the basic problem is the collective ownership of rural land. The thing is that the collective doesn't exist. Actually it's just disguised government ownership, or ownership by officials," Xiao says. "So the government should implement rural land ownership rights to make sure each farmer owns land."

Applause greets the election results, as rebel leaders Lin Zuluan and Yang Semao are elected to the village committee. This model election is an experiment, which shows new flexibility from the local government, and a willingness to work with protest leaders, rather than arresting them.

But land rights is a hot-button issue, in a country founded on peasant rebellions over land. It's not yet clear whether Wukan's land will be returned, and whether the village's experience will be ultimately be as a trailblazer, or simply — as its neighbors fear — as a high-profile exception.

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