Protest leaders elected to key posts in Wukan
Two prominent leaders of land-grab protests in Wukan, Guangdong, were elected village chief and deputy chief yesterday, in a milestone for grass-roots democracy on the mainland.
Land-rights protesters from elsewhere in Guangdong and across the mainland watched the voting, hoping to learn from the historic event and to seize a rare opportunity to voice their own grievances to the international media.
The US consul in Guangzhou, Paul Baldwin, was also allowed to watch the proceedings.
Lin Zuluan and Yang Semao emerged as the people's choices in the most transparent and liberal village election yet seen.
People in the remote fishing village in the province's east began casting their ballots to elect a seven-member village committee at 9am in the playground of Wukan Primary School.
Lin won 90 per cent of the votes for village committee chief. He had led the villagers' fight to elect a new village committee and for the return of the body of Xue Jinbo, a protest leader who died in custody in December. Lin was appointed Wukan's party secretary in January after villagers struck a deal with the government following a months-long stand-off.
Speaking after his victory, Lin said: 'Taking the posts of both party secretary and village chief on my shoulders is a very heavy responsibility. My primary job is to get back the land.' Wukan villagers say corrupt officials sold 1,700 hectares of collectively owned land secretly.
Yang, another protest leader, was elected deputy chief of the committee with nearly 53 per cent of votes.
The turnout yesterday was 83 per cent, roughly the same as the last two preparatory polls, for election committee and village representatives. Xue Jianwan, the daughter of Xue Jinbo, dropped out of the race at the last minute in the evening. Villagers believed she was under pressure from her mother and grandmother.
Baldwin, the US diplomat, said: 'US missions abroad, including ours in China, regularly monitor and report on country conditions and developments. We continue to monitor developments in Wukan closely.'
To win election to the committee, candidates had to secure the support of at least 50 per cent of eligible voters. The rule meant only Lin and Yang qualified yesterday.
Voting to fill the remaining position for a deputy village chief and the four other seats on the committee will be held today, when winning candidates will need only a third of the votes.
Wukan is taking baby steps to restoring democratic governance and retrieving the land they say the previous village leaders stole, following months of defiance last year.
Their protests began in earnest in September.
At one stage the villagers drove out policemen who tried to crack down on their petitions. Later, they set up their own temporary village committee. They achieved a breakthrough in December following Xue Jinbo's death, when provincial leaders intervened.
Just before Christmas, senior government officials pledged to investigate their complaints and allowed them to restage elections after dissolving the previous village governing body.
Yang said: 'We hope the provincial-government-led working group can help us get our land back through administrative measures. Otherwise, we might need to pursue legal means.
'But if that fails, we might need to go back to our old extreme route to petition again.'
Professor Guo Weiqing , of Sun Yat-sen University's school of government, warned that the election was just the beginning. A new round of challenges would confront the newly elected village chiefs, he said, since the rules for addressing long-standing problems such as land disputes remained unclear.