Wukan a model for democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am


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Elections in the Guangdong fishing village of Wukan have the nation riveted and for good reason. Nowhere previously on the mainland have people appeared to be so freely able to choose who they want to represent them. The vote was the first of two, selecting a committee that will next month pick the community's new leaders. It is in the Communist Party's interests not to meddle. By remaining at arms length and allowing villagers for the first time to be in charge of their own affairs, the best possible course will have been set for future development and progress.

Keeping at arm's length from local politics is not in the party's nature. Rights and freedoms are enshrined in the constitution, but these are ignored as a matter of course to ensure control. The National People's Congress passed a law in 1987 allowing elections at the village level, the aim being to give citizens a stake in their own future and curb officials' abuse of power. Voting was to have been gradually extended upwards to townships, counties, cities, provinces and finally, nationally, although there has been little progress due to resistance from cadres who believe that polls could undermine the party and cause instability.

Elections are held as a matter of course, but candidates not affiliated with the party are discouraged from running through intimidation and detention. No matter who wins, their authority is diminished by party appointed secretaries. Insistence on control has not ensured stability; it has deepened corruption and discontent. Illegal seizures of communal land by officials eager to either improve government finances, enrich themselves or improve their standing with superiors has been in large part behind a tide of increasingly violent protests across the country.

Wukan's residents were part of that wave, campaigning for more than two years against their land being grabbed and alleged embezzlement of public funds. Three months of violent protests came to a head in December when an arrested protest leader, Xue Jinbo, died in unexplained circumstances. To the provincial government's credit, an investigation was launched, officials were sacked, another protester was chosen party secretary and the course of elections set.

While the Wukan protests were censored on popular microblogging sites, online discussions about the election have been allowed to freely circulate. There is an amount of cynicism, but considerably greater euphoria, with hopes that the vote represents the seeds of long-promised democracy. It is to be hoped that this is finally the case and that Wukan is not an exception, but a model. Giving China's people the power to choose the people who govern them at every level is the only way for the country to fairly and evenly grow.