Wukan villagers' experiment with democracy has been hard going

Guangdong villagers freely elected their leaders after months of protest, but running their own affairs and getting their land back is proving tough

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 October, 2012, 11:37am

A year after the start of protests that led to free elections in Wukan, a fishing village in east Guangdong, the din of cement mixers and construction trucks has replaced the revolutionary songs that used to blare through loudspeakers.

Cooking smoke curls through the air, and the giant white protest banners that called for the overthrow of corrupt officials have been replaced by slogans encouraging birth control.

Life seems to have returned to normal, but the growing pains have just begun for the village's young government as it grapples with the realities of Democracy 101.

"Many of us don't understand what democracy is and we are still learning," said village committee member Zhuang Liehong . "We are in a transitional phase and need to figure it out for ourselves."

Zhuang, one of four protest leaders previously arrested for their part in the movement, is now in charge of security, mediation and encouraging cremation.

The school playground - which became a laboratory for grass-roots democracy on the mainland when villagers cast their ballots there in free elections early this year - is packed with children unaware of the significant change brought about by their parents' defiance.

In late September of last year, thousands of villagers gathered in Wukan to fight for the return of their land, seized by corrupt officials in illegal land grabs. They defied armed security personnel, and in December demanded justice after protest leader Xue Jinbo died in custody.

Early this year, they voted in elections for a new seven-member village committee, replacing one sacked by the provincial government following months of protests. Instead of sending in troops to break up the protests, Guangdong's Communist Party secretary, Wang Yang , ordered a peaceful resolution, seeking to defuse tensions through mediation, investigation and the sacking of party officials.

The Wukan protests, their peaceful resolution and consequent direct, grass-roots elections - deemed free, fair and transparent - have been hailed as a landmark model for others to follow on the mainland.

"From resistance to realising direct election, we have come a long way," deputy village chief Yang Semao said. "But there is still much to work on in our fight for grass-roots democracy in China.

"For instance, we've posted notices informing villagers of the latest issues, such as construction projects or returned land, but many don't bother to read them, or can't because they are illiterate. Then they end up accusing us of hiding village affairs from them, which is very frustrating."

With post-election euphoria gradually wearing off, the fired-up village officials who vowed to get lost land back when they were sworn in six months ago now appear disheartened in the face of widespread frustration.

"Our honeymoon period lasted for about three months, and after that, it was a mess," Yang said. "Villagers were very supportive and high-spirited at first, but that unity is on the verge of splitting apart.

"Villagers are driven by their land interests, but progress on getting the lost land back has been far from ideal."

Zhuang said he's thinking about quitting.

"I'm saddened that villagers are not showing enough appreciation for all that we have done for them. They took us for granted.

"But if the villagers were supportive, I wouldn't regret it even if I worked myself to death."

Zhuang said people affiliated with the old village committee and developers had manipulated some villagers, encouraging them to attack the new committee. "If they succeed, Wukan will be taken back to square one," he warned.

By early last month, 227 hectares of the 446 hectares of land lost in illegal land grabs had been returned to the village. However, about a third of that was residential land belonging to individuals, and not part of the communal pool.

The fate of another 493 hectares of disputed land - shared with six neighbouring villages - remains undecided, even though the provincial government has promised to resolve the problem this month.

"It's unsettling knowing our land is still in the hands of villains," said Zhang Bingchai , a seafood trader in Wukan. "Democracy is good, as we have a responsible village committee working on our behalf, but the upper levels of government are not acting quickly enough to resolve our problems.

"Only with land can the village forge ahead with development. Only then will the villagers have hope. I hope our experiment with democracy continues.

"The government [of the county-level city of Lufeng ] has imposed heavy surveillance on the first anniversary of unrest, but the villagers are very rational. If the land can be returned to us, then long live the party: it's that simple."

To prevent a repeat of last year's protest, the city authorities in Lufeng and Shanwei - which have jurisdiction over Wukan - have planned ahead.

About 10 villagers who were active players in last year's uprising have been escorted from Wukan, while many others have been banned from visiting Hong Kong or Macau. Many villagers believe their mobile phone calls are being monitored, and access to their microblogs has been blocked.

Villagers who used to host visiting journalists in their homes were warned against doing so ahead of the anniversary, and were questioned if they did. Journalists have also been trailed and questioned when reporting in the village, with some hotels in Lufeng turning away reporters and foreigners.

The cash-strapped village government has almost no revenue, because it has decided against levying charges on villagers who have been running small shops outside their homes in the wake of the land-grab turmoil.

"It is futile to talk about anything else, including democracy, without an economic foundation," said party secretary and village chief Lin Zuluan .

"Most of the existing revenue channels, such as fish ponds, are still occupied by people affiliated with the previous village committee. We can charge a small sum for running the wet market, but even that has been operating at a loss because we have to cover its environmental and hygiene costs."

With no income coming from the village, Wukan has had to rely on funding from higher-level governments.

They are paying for 60 million yuan (HK$73 million) worth of construction work in Wukan - with projects including a library, improved water and electricity networks, a shelter for fishing boats and a new school.

"It is hard for us to introduce social management policies with our finances in such a poor state," Lin said. "With no money to pay workers, how can you make them work for you? We are a village, how do we know what politics are? It's useless to chant slogans. Overcoming the economic difficulties is our priority, but it is a tough fight."

Lin said he expected the village would be able to get back 70 per cent of the land it had lost. But he added that it would be hard to avoid unrest if the land wasn't returned. Yang said he knew grass-roots democracy was going to be hard, but he didn't know it was going to be this hard.

"But we won't give up easily, because we are held accountable by the people who elected us. And after all, only a minority has expressed discontent."