Chinese Village Official's Detention Sparks Fears of Poll Rigging

china-yang-semao-dec-2013.jpg Yang Semao discusses the difficulty of reclaiming villagers' stolen land in Wukan village, Guangdong province, Dec. 12, 2013.

Authorities in the rebel southern Chinese village of Wukan released a former protest leader on bail Monday after detaining him for four days as villagers gear up for a renewed standoff with government officials over the openness of forthcoming local elections.

Prosecutors placed Yang Semao, current deputy head of Wukan village near Guangdong province's Lufeng city, under criminal detention last Thursday for "taking bribes," the Lufeng city government said on its official Twitter-like Weibo account.

The English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said Yang had freely admitted accepting 20,000 yuan (U.S.$3,252) in bribes from project contractors
last year.

But Yang told the paper he had donated half the money to local school anonymously and returned the other half, it said.

Yang was among leaders of a 2011 Wukan uprising against the Communist Party, which resulted in the ousting of local party officials accused of illegal land grabs,

Yang told RFA's Mandarin Service on his release Monday that he would still run for village chief in forthcoming village elections, however.

"The government supported my doing this, and so did the villagers," Yang said. "I am very grateful to the government for supporting my taking part in the election, but that is what they say."

"Whether they will really act on this, we will have to wait and see what happens," he said.

Fears of election rigging

Yang said a planned open meeting he should have chaired had been dispersed after a short time in his absence, sparking fears that the government was trying to rig the election in its favor.

One Wukan resident surnamed Zhang said Yang's detention was timed to coincide with the planned meeting.

"The authorities didn't want the villagers to hold a full village committee meeting, so they found an excuse to detain [Yang]," he said.

"After Yang was taken away and locked up, it all fell apart, and more than 200 villagers gathered outside the village committee buildings in protest," Zhang said.

"They said the authorities were interfering with the workings of democracy."

He said Yang's detention was the result of a "set-up" by allies of corrupt officials.

"They wanted to warn him not to stand for election," Zhang said.

Meeting ends prematurely

A second resident of Wukan, who gave only her surname Hong, said villagers were less concerned about the money Yang received than about the government's plans for the elections.

She said a meeting designed to allow candidates to address local residents had been ended prematurely at the weekend, in Yang's absence.

"They won't let us hold meetings, so we are afraid that they are trying to rig everything," Hong said. "For example, they are insisting that certain people be allowed a seat on the committee, which means that the idea of one person, one vote, is just for show."

"That's what we're afraid of."

She said villagers hoped the elections would be free and fair, like those held in the immediate aftermath of December 2011's violent protests, in March 2012.

"We are the people, and they are the officials," Hong said, in a pun on the Chinese word for democracy. "How can we be their masters?"

She said villagers were now calling for a full meeting in which the different candidates would debate together on stage in front of potential voters.

"Each candidate should get to go on stage and speak about how they are planning to deal with Wukan's problems...That is the fairest way of doing it, I think," Hong said.

2011 standoff

Hundreds of villagers defended their village against armed police in a standoff with security forces in December 2011, following weeks of peaceful protest at decades of unauthorized land selloffs by former party secretary Xue Chang, who has since been disciplined for corruption.

Six protest leaders were later elected to the village committee on March 3, 2012 after provincial leaders intervened on villagers' behalf, while Lin Zuluan was appointed party secretary by authorities in Donghai township, which administers Wukan.

Earlier this month, around 78 percent of eligible voters in the 20,000-strong village turned out to vote in a poll to choose the committee that will implement the elections.

Yang said at the time that the turnout was slightly better than predicted, although some older party officials had made a comeback on the list of 43 candidates contesting 11 places on the committee.

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 justified.

Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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