Wukan holds first free election
More than 6,000 people in restive Wukan - a Guangdong fishing community where villagers have been in a stand-off with authorities for months over dodgy land grabs - cast ballots yesterday for a committee that will oversee elections for a new village chief next month.
Village-level polls have been carried out on the mainland for years, but analysts say the situation in Wukan is unique, as there was no sign of manipulation in the nominations, and every adult resident can vote.
Villagers voted yesterday for 11 out of 22 candidates to form the panel that will be responsible for supervising and organising a village committee election next month.
Amid a heavy presence of government officials from Donghai township and Lufeng city in the province's remote east, the election kicked off in the morning on the playground of a Wukan primary school.
Villagers were divided according to seven geographical groups and began filling in and casting their ballots by lining up in their assigned lanes.
'I'm very excited,' said Yang Jinlu, 43, who walked out of the voting station with a big grin, showing off a mouthful of metallic dental fillings. 'This is our village's biggest achievement in the past four decades. For me, it's a historic experience to have the first taste of democracy.'
Of 12,000 people in the village, 8,222 are over 18 and eligible to vote. Of those, 7,349 registered to vote and around 6,200 cast their ballots yesterday, representing a turnout of more than 80 per cent.
They included Lin Ruoyuan, who made it to the voter's list just in time, as his 18th birthday fell a day before the election.
'It means so much to me to make it just in time for the first fair and open election in the village,' Lin said.
The teenager's sentiment was echoed by Yang. 'I think this is a true realisation of democracy, where people are motivated to exercise their rights to vote voluntarily.'
To many residents, yesterday's vote represented the triumph of a petition drive, which lasted more than two years, against village officials whom the people accused of stealing their land since 2006 and 'embezzling' more than 700 million yuan (HK$860 million) in public funds.
The Wukan incident escalated into a three-month stand-off with the authorities. From September to December, a series of petitions and demonstrations turned into violent clashes with police as villagers were forcibly dispersed.
Tensions reached boiling point in December after a protest leader, Xue Jinbo, 42, died in police custody.
Wukan was placed under lockdown by authorities, but a peace accord was reached just before Christmas, as the Guangdong provincial government acknowledged the villagers' claims and sent a high-level investigative committee to look into their appeals for land rights and the restoration of village governance through an election.
Xue's bereaved daughter, Xue Jianwan, was in tears after casting her ballot. 'I just know this is something that my dad would wish me to do. I just came here to fulfil his final wish,' she said.
Each of the 22 candidates for the election committee gained no fewer than 50 nominations from villagers. Voters were also allowed to cast their ballots for any villager, even ones whose names were not on the official list of contenders.
Ballot boxes were officially sealed at 4pm yesterday after Wukan village party secretary Lin Zuluan announced that the election was over. The votes were carried by villagers into school classrooms guarded by armed police. Unused ballot papers were burned immediately after voting ended.
Yang Semao, former chairman of Wukan's temporary village representative committee, praised the orderly election. But he also said the village had paid a 'huge price' in their fight for land rights and a fair election, with Xue's death and suffering through months of protests.
'Corrupt and closed elections in the past can't compare with what we have today,' Yang said. He noted that elderly and illiterate voters were assisted by volunteers such as university students and schoolteachers.
However, not everyone shared in the enthusiasm over the elections. Wu Fang, 52, stood on the playground and said he was sceptical about the exercise.
'I will wait to make sure there is nothing fishy about this election before casting my vote. There are way too many corrupt officials,' Wu said.
Xiong Wei, a Beijing-based lobbyist for parliamentary democracy, was in the village yesterday and said he was pleased by what he saw.
Commenting on Wukan's election, he said: 'There are two innovations this time: villagers can fill out their votes in secret voting booths and anyone can become a candidate, whether through self-nomination or the nomination of others. If, at the very least, this mode of election can be adopted across Guangdong province, it would be a huge step forward.'
But Guo Yushan, a researcher at private think tank the Transition Institute, gave a more conservative appraisal of the election.
'Wukan's case has a unique background,' Guo said. 'What they are now doing is actually what the law says is supposed to be done. But too often in China, whether rules are observed depends on the local officials.'
Additional reporting by Ng Tze-wei