Once Under Siege, a Chinese Village Takes to the Polls

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Vincent Yu / AP

A villager walks past ballot filling-in desks at a polling station set up in a school in Wukan village, Lufeng city, south China's Guangdong province, March 2, 2012.

This weekend China will see an exercise of democracy in an unlikely place — a village that just months ago had been in a tense standoff with police. Voters in Wukan, a coastal village of 12,000 in Guangdong province, will go to the polls to select a new village committee. While village-level elections have existed in China since the 1980s, the Wukan vote comes after widespread anger over corruption, the death in police custody of a local protest leader and the fear of a harsh crackdown on the village, which ousted its local leaders late last year. But unlike some past incidents in which the opposition has been crushed and its leaders arrested, the Wukan standoff was resolved peacefully after the intervention of provincial authorities. 

This denouement earned praised from Beijing. The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, wrote in December that “the courage to right these wrongs reflects our Party’s consistent purpose.” During a February visit to the Guangdong provincial capital of Guangzhou, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the need to protect the right to vote in village elections and to ensure farmers’ land rights. In Wukan, residents were incensed that village leaders had sold communal lands without their approval and had embezzled proceeds, allegations that a provincial-level investigation has since called valid, the state-run Xinhua news service reported. Previous local elections had also been rigged, the investigators said.

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The conditions that set off the Wukan uprising are worryingly commonplace in China. Local governments rely on land sales as a primary means of revenue. The values can be huge, creating a strong incentive for officials to skim the takings or offer sweetheart deals to cronies. A recent survey across 17 Chinese provinces found that 43% of villages reported the taking of land for non-agricultural purposes since the 1990s. The survey is part of a series conducted by Seattle-based Landesa, a nonprofit research organization formerly known as the Rural Development Institute, in conjunction with China’s Renmin University and Michigan State University. It found that farmers received no compensation in one-fifth of all land-taking cases, and what compensation farmers did receive was far less on average than the resale prices of the land. “It is therefore not surprising that dissatisfied farmers outnumber the satisfied by a margin of two to one,” the survey’s authors wrote in their summary. That dissatisfaction is fueling widespread protest in China. Economist Niu Wenyuan, an adviser to China’s State Council, said the country averaged 500 mass protests per day last year, the Guangzhou-based Xin Kuai Bao reported.

And those protests are not all resolved in the same manner. In Panhe, a coastal village in Zhejiang province, villagers angered by an official land grab saw their protest leaders nabbed by police. A Dutch journalist who visited was twice assaulted, as was the assistant of a French reporter. Tom Lasseter, a McClatchy reporter who also visited the village, described a town in the midst of a harsh crackdown. “Wukan … has not turned out to be a model for the rest of the nation, at least so far,” he wrote.

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Indeed, Wukan is unique. The presence of Hong Kong media and foreign reporters made the village a focus of global attention. Wang Yang, the Guangdong Communist Party secretary, is vying for a seat on the Politburo standing committee, the nation’s top decision-making body, when it is reshuffled this fall. “This has a lot to do with individual personalities, for sure,” says Liu Yawei, head of the China program for the Atlanta-based Carter Center and an expert on village elections. “I think Wang Yang is more open-minded, more reform-minded. This required courage and vision. He had to take in mind how this would affect his chance of being elevated to the Politburo standing committee.” Still, Wukan isn’t completely free from the traditional forms of official coercion. A Reuters report from the village cites one grassroots democracy advocate who fears for his own safety and a candidate who says he was recently tailed.

Liu says that the media attention on Wukan should help prevent any significant electoral abuses. But he notes the focus on Wukan also shows how little progress China has made in reforming its political system. “Village elections have been ongoing for almost a quarter century, but they have not been elevated to township and city levels,” he says. “There’s no fundamental change in China’s government structure or behavior. Wukan should be the norm, it should not be an exception. The attention it has triggered shows how slow reform has been in moving forward.”

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