Wukan's new leaders losing steam amid reality of politics a year later

A year after Wukan's watershed moment in democracy, leaders have faced obstacles to fulfilling their election promises

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 March, 2013, 4:43am

A year ago last week, the tiny Guangdong fishing village of Wukan made history with a democratic election to choose its local leaders.

The election was the villagers' reward for months of tenacious protest against illegal land grabs by corrupt officials. The demonstrations saw them kick out their old leaders and effectively cut themselves off from the outside world.

The poll was considered free and fair, and the village was held up as an example by human rights campaigners and an inspiration to other rural dwellers who had also seen land taken from them.

But a year on, villagers are losing patience with their elected leaders over the slow pace of progress to reclaim the stolen land, while the elected village committee stands accused of being too close to the authorities. Some say the committee is too focused on maintaining stability, rather than fighting for the villagers' rights.

Discontent is bubbling under the surface, with some speculating that another protest is possible in the coming weeks, as villagers have waited for months for the new provincial leadership to settle down and signal a way forward on land disputes.

The elected representatives, meanwhile, feel let down by the higher authorities - though some remain optimistic that the experiment in democracy will prove fruitful in the long term.

Land rights - a problem in villages across the mainland - remain at the heart of the problem.

Wu Zili, mayor of Shanwei, the prefecture-level city under which Wukan is administrated, told the provincial party mouthpiece Southern Daily in January that Wukan had retrieved 330 of the 446 hectares of land the villagers had lost.

But this claim was challenged by villagers, who listed in an open letter details of land they say are still in the hands of businessmen close to former village heads. They name Li Bingji, a delegate to the National People's Congress, as one of the businessmen.

Local people said they had only won back 233 hectares of land, with the rest feared lost forever as transactions were completed before the election.

Several villagers blamed a lack of sincerity from the authorities of Lufeng county and Shanwei city for the failings.

"They're just playing a delaying tactic," said Zhang Jianxing, a young activist. "If they want to solve the problems, they'll at least set a basic tone. But that is not the case now."

Chen Suzhuan, who was elected to the village committee in March last year, said she felt betrayed by the authorities, who had pledged to give back land illegally grabbed under former village chief Xue Chang.

"Now they're backtracking, saying what's been done has been done, leaving us [the village committee] in a very awkward position when challenged by villagers," she said.

Zhang said: "Some people fear they will lose the land for good if the new village committee does not keep on fighting. Without land, villagers can not see where their future lies."

Activists are showing their defiance to the inexperienced village leaders, including refusing to pay a management fee required for fishing, which only exacerbates a funding shortfall faced by the village committee.

Government subsidies remain a key source of funding for public projects in the village, including construction of a library, roads and water networks, as the new village committee has been unable to bring in investment with land issues unresolved.

Among those who have lost faith in the system is Zhuang Liehong, who was elected to the committee a year ago, but quit in October. He said the elected leaders should negotiate with the government to get the land back "but now they are toeing a very tight official line".

For instance, the village committee has refused to release details on disputed land plots because higher levels of government do not want it to.

"This is actually a good way to engage with the villagers, explaining to them where the obstacles lie and what the plans to overcome them are," said Zhuang, who runs a teahouse. "This is the only way villagers will have faith in the leaders."

However, Lin Zuluan, the elected party chief, sees it differently. Without government support, he says, village autonomy means next to nothing.

"For a rural village, you'll need economic funding for whatever you want to do. I think a village will face tremendous difficulties in whatever endeavour without [local] government support and central consent," he said.

Amid huge pressure from the village, the 69-year-old leader said he still believed the democratic experiment was worthwhile, but he regretted taking part as it had raised unrealistic expectations among the villagers.

The predicament of the inexperienced Wukan politicians reflect the challenges for village autonomy against a backdrop of powerful higher-level governments and entrenched interests.

Officials also fear that radical moves at Wukan could invoke wider social changes they do not want to see.

Although a provincial government working group was sent to the village shortly after the protests in late 2011, Zhang said it did little to solve the land disputes.

"They have a lot to consider, of course: the impact on businesses, government and villagers. Also, whether nearby villages would follow Wukan's suit, and whether the whole political system in China could be impacted. They have to evaluate all these issues, so they are extremely cautious in dealing with Wukan's land problems.

"So for them the priority is not solving the land disputes, but rather to maintain stability in the village," he said.

In fact, the Wukan model - where protests paved the way for fair elections - has already inspired other communities.

Villagers in Shangpu, about 100 kilometres from Wukan, also requested the right to vote for their leader and on whether to approve a controversial proposal to transform rice fields into an industrial zone, amid a stand-off over violent clashes with thugs linked to a local official.

But Wukan may no longer be the perfect role model.

Reflecting on the election, Chen Suzhuan called democracy in Wukan "a total accident", while other villages doubted the significance of democratic rule, since it had not made a big difference in solving the land issues.

But the year-old experiment in democracy is gradually changing the villagers, Chen says. They now dare to criticise the village leaders and have started to show more concern about political events nationally.

Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said villagers had not been educated in the concepts of civil rights and responsibilities, and it would take time for them to grasp the meaning of democracy.

But Lin, the village chief, rejected the idea that Wukan's democracy had failed. "It can only be achieved through a long process, despite all the noises."