Wukan polls to be hailed not feared

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am


Wukan's pioneering elections were as free, fair and transparent as a democratic vote can be. Never before on the mainland has there been such a poll, so it is understandable that the manner in which residents of the Guangdong village chose their leaders is being hailed as a model for others in the nation to follow. Despite the success, though, doubts persist among Communist Party officials that what evolved from specific circumstances can be replicated elsewhere. Such concerns are unwarranted. What took place was simply villagers gaining for the first time the ability to exercise their legitimate right to manage their own affairs.

That right is enshrined in national and provincial laws, but the Communist Party's desire to keep tight control has prevented villagers from truly having a say in their future. Wukan broke the mould thanks to Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang . Rather than sending in police and troops to break up farmers' protests over illegal seizure of their land, a too-common occurrence, he opted for mediation, an investigation and the sacking of party officials. The elections to choose a new village committee and leaders were a natural final step.

It was a landmark decision, but equally unusual was the authorities' setting aside inhibitions about allowing events to unfold in the glare of domestic and international press scrutiny, while microblog discussions of Wukan, at first censored, were soon also given free rein.

A single election at the most grass roots of levels does not instantly right wrongs. Wukan's farmers still have to get their land back and their decisions remain subject to approval at higher government levels. Corruption remains rife and the media is not able to freely do its job. People are still routinely intimidated and arrested for protecting property and standing up for legal rights.

Officials worry that what has been allowed to happen in Wukan will open the floodgates of agitation. The dozens of people with similar grievances who travelled from elsewhere in Guangdong to observe the election, show a desire to learn and push for the same rights. But authorities have nothing to fear; the orderliness of the polls and the peaceful aspirations of Wukan's voters prove that. Instead of blocking efforts for electoral reform, they should be encouraging and facilitating.

The 1987 village election law aimed to give people a stake in their future and curb officials' abuse of power. Elections were to have been gradually extended upwards to the national level. As yet, Wukan is the only shining example. But authorities should not wait to see how residents cope with their new powers. Instead, they have to set aside reservations and ensure that rights are properly and fully implemented.