Protest’s Success May Not Change China

Lin Zuluan, one of the leaders of the land protest in Wukan, was elected head of the village committee in an election on Saturday. More Photos »

By Michael Wines, NYT Global, Mar 5 2012

WUKAN, China — For the brave and canny residents who famously rose up in December and ran their corrupt leaders out of town, the election held on Saturday in this ramshackle fishing village was billed as the big payoff, a democratic reward for demanding their rights.

And maybe it was. But even before the votes were counted, there were hints that their triumph might have been oversold.

More than 6,000 of the town’s 8,000 eligible voters trooped to a makeshift election center at the village school and chose a new village council to replace the old one, disbanded amid allegations of land fraud. They filled out pink ballots in rows of plywood booths that ensured their choices would remain secret, then dropped them in big steel boxes sealed with tamper-proof stickers. Officials tallied the votes in the schoolyard as residents looked on. Above the scene, banners proclaimed “Civilized election, fair competition” and “Obeying the law.”

It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China’s opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan’s struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders.

“This is by far the most transparent election we’ve ever had in this village,” said Yang Semao, who was elected the deputy director of the new village committee. “The past ones were all fake democracy.”

Lin Zuluan, the retired businessman who led the protest, was chosen as the committee’s director.

In some circles, Wukan has been held up as a template for China’s leaders to follow in settling the tens of thousands of local disputes that crop up every year and that often end in head-cracking conflict between residents and the authorities. And beyond doubt, Saturday’s election was the closing act in a Frank Capra story that has riveted observers worldwide.

Wukan’s townsfolk had struggled for years, from taking petitions to higher-ups to engaging in bloody battles with the police, to reclaim the collective farmland the local leaders had sold without their blessing. The last straw came in December after one land activist, Xue Jinbo, was abducted by the police in a neighboring town and died in jail.

After furious residents evicted their leaders and the local police force, they stared down cordons of police officers ringing the village for 10 days before Guangdong Province officials blinked and offered to address their grievances and let them choose a new village committee.

China’s villages have long been allowed to elect their leaders, but the votes frequently are controlled by cliques, or the winners all but handpicked by Communist Party officials. Saturday’s vote in Wukan stood in sharp contrast, and it drew wide coverage even in China’s state-run news media.

Xiong Wei, a grass-roots activist from Beijing who spent weeks training villagers in the art of holding a clean election, said provincial officials had generally supported the vote, even as it was clear that the leaders of the December uprising — including two who had been arrested — would run for office and might well win.

Some voters said they were confident that a freely elected leadership would achieve what petitions and protests had failed to: the return of the thousands of acres of land that had been sold without approval, and whose proceeds never reached the villagers.

“I’m very excited to join this election,” said Zhu Qijie, a 25-year-old trading company employee who drove overnight from Guangzhou to vote. “I know they’ll face a lot of difficulties. But I also know they’ll act from their hearts.”

Yet on Saturday, there was fresh evidence at every turn that a single free election would be hard-pressed to change the system that spawned Wukan’s problems, much less inspire national rulers to follow its example.

Wukan’s land scandal reaches into layers of higher governments whose territory includes the village, and who wield authority over village leaders. Protest leaders charge that crony relationships within the bureaucracies allowed the land sales to take place.

Mr. Xiong, the Beijing activist, said on Saturday that he had been trailed by security officials from Shanwei, an administrative center whose officials bitterly criticized the villagers’ protest.

Xue Jianwan, 40, the daughter of the dead land activist, Xue Jinbo, had been nominated for a seat on the new committee. She said that officials from another administrative center, Lufeng, appeared last Wednesday at her home.

“They said I should not give up my teaching career,” she said in an interview. “They said, ‘Think twice about running for office.’ ”

Villagers in Wukan have long accused Lufeng’s government of facilitating the land sales. Lufeng police officers seized Mr. Xue in December, and he died in jail from a heart attack, city officials say. Afterward, the officials rejected demands for an investigation and refused to release his body to his family.

Mr. Xue was buried last month after weeks of standoff between the city and his survivors. Ms. Xue said she had given up on winning an inquiry into her father’s death.

“I don’t want to disturb my father’s body just to punish the thugs who did this,” she said.

Some observers of China’s politics say they believe that Wukan is not a template for change, but a feel-good moment in a sophisticated system that handles citizen unrest on a case-by-case basis — iron fist here, velvet glove there.

As in Wukan, party leaders in Dalian, in northern China, placated thousands of environmental protesters in August by promising to shutter a chemical factory said to be hazardous. Yet this month in Zhejiang Province, north of Guangdong, officials suppressed a Wukan-style land protest in Panhe by systematically rounding up protest leaders and sealing their village off from journalists.

“It’s the triumph of hope over experience,” Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar of Chinese domestic politics, said of speculation that Wukan could become a national model. “Reform in China doesn’t start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward.

“Wukan is an attractive instance of what’s possible. But it’s not even probable.”

In fact, it seems improbable even in Wukan’s home province.

Outside the schoolyard gate, just beyond the rows of uniformed paramilitary officers who stood guard over the election center, a visitor was besieged by clots of men and women waving papers and photographs. They were petitioners — from villages that, like Wukan, had lost their land to unaccountable leaders and could not get it back.

Residents of Shuangfangtang, which is also under Lufeng’s jurisdiction, sought publicity for the loss of several hundred acres of land last year.

The people of Huangtian, outside the metropolis of Shenzhen, claimed a local party leader had sold their land to his son; journalists from Beijing and Guangdong had investigated the sale, one said, but their reports were never published.

The people of Shuidian, a fishing village in Guangdong Province south of Wukan, said officials in Beijing and Guangdong had ignored their pleas for an inquiry into the sale of hundreds of acres of their land by village leaders.

Their last demand — in December, about the time of the Wukan uprising — was in the form of a march by more than 200 residents to the administrative center of Leizhou. Police beat them until they fled, they said.

“It’s impossible for government to address these issues,” Cai Yutian, an unemployed 34-year-old man, said. “We can’t count on them. The city officials are just as corrupt as the village officials.”

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