A year after free election, grass-roots democracy in Wukan withers

First anniversary of village's free poll finds its residents riven by unresolved land seizures while an old mindset returns

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 4:38am

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the fair election in Wukan, a remote Guangdong fishing village known for its remarkable civil resistance that won "real democracy" in the form of a direct, grass-roots election for its government.

However, it's doubtful that villagers will be celebrating their success on the anniversary.

A year ago, more than 80 per cent of qualified voters in the village cast their ballots and elected protest leaders to form a seven-member village committee, replacing one sacked by the provincial government after months of protests.

Although there are laws governing rural elections, they are rarely enacted in such a fair and transparent manner. Wukan's election was a remarkable victory for civil society, making it a beacon of hope ever since.

Land-rights activism finally won a battle in the war against institutionalised corruption on the mainland. Many hailed Wukan's protests, their peaceful resolution and consequent direct, grass-roots elections - deemed free, fair and transparent - as a landmark model for others to follow.

Today, however, optimism no longer prevails in Wukan, where grass-roots democracy has gradually withered away over the past year. Growing resentment among elected leaders and villagers is tearing away at the village's remarkable victory. Unresolved land issues, especially disputes with neighbouring villages, are further dividing Wukan.

The frustration is in stark contrast to the unity among the thousands of villagers, which once moved and drew the world press to cover their protests against illegal land seizures. With post-election euphoria wearing off, the village officials who vowed to retrieve the land they lost to the illegal seizures when they were sworn in now appear disheartened in the face of widespread frustration.

Lin Zuluan , the elected head of Wukan who was regarded as the village's soul, has shied away from talking to the press, especially foreign outlets, due to pressure from upper-level authorities. Recently, he said publicly that he regretted taking part in the Wukan campaign.

The old mindset of "maintaining social stability" is returning to Wukan. Villagers, especially active players in the Wukan protest movement, have been placed under close surveillance and their freedom to travel to Guangzhou or Hong Kong is limited. Some were even escorted away at sensitive times. The cash-strapped village government is also not receiving adequate financial support from the state to run projects.

Even though the villagers achieved so much, it was impossible for the seed of democracy to sprout into something real without the right nurturing soil. Wukan has been practicing democracy 101 in a hostile environment, which neither upholds freedom of speech nor the rule of law.

Their difficulties in regaining stolen land, the way their civil resistance has changed other villages in Guangdong and the behind-the-scenes political manipulation in Wukan are not allowed to be reported by the local press.

Ambiguous rules on illegal land seizures are also dividing the Wukan government and desperate villagers who do not know when the village will be whole again. Without matching democratic institutions, how can grass-roots democracy be realised? It takes a lot more than one election to build a real democratic society.