Villagers who staged a rebellion against local officials they accused of stealing their farmland voted for new leaders Saturday in a much-watched poll reformers hope will set a standard for resolving the protracted disputes that beset China.
Huang Jinqi was among the several thousand locals in this small fishing village in southern Guangdong province to fill in a ballot for the seven-member village committee and drop the pink paper into metal boxes set up in the town center.
The 63-year-old farmer said the process was going smoothly and he was satisfied with how it had been organized.
“It is open and transparent,” he said.
China has allowed village elections for nearly three decades but local Communist Party leaders — the real power-holders — often try to manipulate the results. By those standards, Wukan is conducting what seems to be one of China’s freest polls.
“Hopefully local authorities in other places of Guangdong and even other provinces will refer to Wukan as a precedent when they face similar situations,” said Li Lianjiang, an expert on China’s local elections and protests at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Tens of thousands of protests occur in China each year, many of them compounded by indifferent if not corrupt local officials. As in many villages, Wukan’s troubles arose over land. Villagers said the local head, in power for decades, sold their farmland to developers without their consent.
Protests flared last year, with villagers smashing a police station and cars. After key village activists were detained in December, villagers drove out officials and barricaded themselves in for 10 days, keeping police out and holding boisterous rallies.
Unlike similar standoffs in China that often end in arrests, the provincial government conceded. It offered to stage the new elections, return some of the disputed farmland and release the detained activists, as well as the body of one who died in detention.
The result was hailed by more liberal Chinese state media and democratic campaigners as the “Wukan model” — a systematic approach in which the government uncharacteristically puts the interests of locals ahead of its usual emphasis on maintaining order. Wang Yang, Guangdong’s party secretary who has a reputation as a reformer, said Wukan showed that a balance can be struck between “preserving stability and preserving rights.”
Many experts, however, said that it’s far too soon to say if political leaders will summon the will to replicate Wukan’s lessons elsewhere.
“Wukan so far is an exceptional case,” said Li Fan, who runs a private think tank in Beijing that has been involved in local government experiments. “In this case, no matter how well the Wukan village elections proceed, the impact on the development of grass-roots democracy is very limited.”
Even so, the fact that many of the activists in Wukan’s revolt ran for membership in the village committee is a precedent. To defuse protests, local governments often make concessions, then arrest ringleaders when tempers have subsided, a practice known as “settling accounts after the harvest.”