Wukan Votes in Protest Leaders

Leaders of last year's violent siege make up the southern Chinese village's newly elected committee.

2012.03.05
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wukan-vote-305.jpg Residents cast their vote on the second day of village elections in Wukan on March 4, 2012.
AFP

Voters in the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan have delivered a resounding ballot-box victory for the leaders of last year's armed protests against official corruption.

Former land protester Zhang Jiancheng, who had warned of possible interference in the elections by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said the weekend's elections had gone well and had been fair, open, and transparent.

Zhang, who won one of the seats on the village committee in Saturday's poll, said the newly elected committee was now entirely composed of former leaders of last year's violent siege of Wukan, in which villagers wielding makeshift weapons fought off armed police at hastily erected barricades.

"The first thing we will do now is solve the problem of people's livelihood," Zhang said in a reference to large tracts of farmland sold off by Xue Chang, former village Party secretary and powerful local businessman who ruled the fortunes of local farming families for nearly four decades.

"Gradually, we will push this agenda higher and higher up [the levels of government]."

Land grabs

The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments triggers thousands of "mass incidents" across China every year, but many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government's wishes.

In the case of Wukan, however, the standoff with armed police who encircled the village sparked rare concessions following an investigation by the provincial government of Guangdong, which concluded that most of the villagers' demands and complaints were fair.

The authorities disbanded the previous village committee, which had been monopolized for decades by the ruling Chinese Communist Party village secretary and businessman Xue Chang.

They also appointed protest leader Lin Zuluan, who has been a Party member since 1965, in his place and set up a directly elected committee to run Saturday's poll, which was attended by large numbers of journalists and Guangzhou-based U.S. deputy consul Paul Baldwin.

Zhang—who was one of three protesters detained at the height of the protests in December, another of whom died in police custody—said the return of lost farmland was high on the new committee's agenda.

"If we find that there have been corrupt practices by village officials, we will request that the land be returned to the villagers under the supervision of higher levels of government," Zhang said.

"We want to get back our land, the vegetable-growing land that was sold out from under us," he said. "We also want to rebuild the irrigation system and preserve the land for agricultural use ... so as to guarantee a basic standard of living for our residents."

Villagers' reactions

Villagers gave a cautious welcome to the results.

"I hope they'll be able to get our land back," said one Wukan resident surnamed Lin.

A second resident surnamed Zhuang said the protesters-turned-officials had already scaled down their compensation demands since December.

"When we were protesting, we were saying we wanted 480,000 yuan in compensation per household, but now that doesn't look too likely," he said.

"Now it's half that; they are talking about 240,000 yuan. Before, they were saying that around 3,000 mu of land had been sold off by the government, but now they're saying it's only around 2,000 mu that was sold."

He added, "It will be best if they can do what they promised to do, otherwise we could [get rid of them too]."

Model village?

Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Hu Xingdou said he believed that the poll's success could serve as a model for handling land disputes in other parts of China.

"Wukan could possibly become a model to expand the limits of grassroots rural democracy in China, and to effect a fundamental change and improvement in governance in rural areas," Hu said. "Then, village elections would become truly democratic."

"The Wukan model represents the future direction of development in rural China," he said.

Guangzhou-based civil rights activist Tang Jingling said he thought this unlikely, however.

"The Wukan village elections were very small, so we shouldn't overestimate their importance," he said. "The question of land actually affects the entire political system, and it crosses the limits of village, city, and provincial power."

"China's system is fundamentally undemocratic, so there will be a lot of resistance to the spread [of the Wukan model]. It would be hard for it to have ... this effect."

Tang said the newly elected committee would immediately face a huge number of problems, including continuing conflict between officials and local people.

Protester's death

One continuing dispute between villagers and police concerns the autopsy and remains of protester Xue Jinbo, who died in police custody at the height of the December standoff. An official autopsy said he had died of a heart attack, but relatives who identified his body said it was covered in bruises from head to foot.

The authorities have refused to release Xue Jinbo's body to his relatives until the family "admits" he died of illness, and his daughter Xue Jianwan lost her civil service teaching job at the local school after speaking out publicly about her father's death.

She also stepped down from her bid for the deputy chairman post, which was won by former protester Yang Semao, citing family pressure. It was unclear whether she had been reinstated in her job, however.

Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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