Grass roots leader withdraws from politics as Wukan loses faith in democracy experiment

Residents in Guangdong village fear public disenchantment could sink democratic experiment two years after historic uprising over land grabs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 11:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 4:25pm

After a little more than a year in the limelight, Zhuang Liehong has given up politics. Zhuang emerged as a leader of grass-roots protests over stolen land in Wukan in Guangdong in 2011 and was elected to its village committee in a historic democratic election the following year.

But he quit the committee in October and does not intend to stand in the new poll slated for some time after winter. Like many others in this community, Zhuang has lost faith in democracy - at least the local version - amid a clash of competing interests and claims of a lack in transparency in the committee's proceedings.

The fishing village of about 20,000 people in the province's east drew international attention when hundreds of villagers became locked in a stand-off with police in September 2011. They were angered by the loss of their traditional farmland which had been sold off to developers behind their backs. The situation escalated until late December, when provincial officials gave in to the protesters' core demand and promised to investigate land grab claims.

As part of the agreement, in early 2012, more than 80 per cent of qualified voters in the village cast their ballots and elected protest leaders to form the seven-member village committee.

But Wukan's revolution has run aground. It was caught between the high expectations of villagers still waiting for the return of the land, and a hardening of the Communist Party's attitude towards their experiment after former Guangdong governor Wang Yang - who backed the experiment - was replaced by Hu Chunhua.

Only a few villagers have indicated they want to participate in the upcoming poll, for which a date has not been announced. Hu implied last November that Wukan's next village head should be a party member - prompting villagers' fears of a return to the days when the committee was dominated by cadres.

"To enhance the Communist Party's ruling in grass-roots democracy … choose the best cadre to be the local party secretary, and encourage the village's party secretary to be the head of the village committee," Hu was quoted as saying by the provincial party mouthpiece Nanfang Daily, on November 15. "Other village committee members should also be party members."

Except for new village chief Lin Zuluan, a retired cadre and an instigator of the village uprising, most of the current village committee members are not party members.

Xiong Wei, a Peking University legal scholar who advised the villagers in their first election, sees Hu's new rule as a sign Wukan's nascent democracy is at risk.

It was "very likely" the coming election would fail to meet the minimum 50 per cent voter turnout. Villagers - who claim their elected officials have not delivered on promises to return their land - see few reasons to participate. If this happens, the village party secretary will take over the committee.

"The local party members are all connected with the former village boss," Xiong said. "They will not act in the villagers' interests, that's for sure."

Media-savvy Wang made clear his support for the development of Wukan's democracy, and Hu has been conspicuously quiet about the topic since taking over. Analysts say that without a clear sign of support from Hu, local authorities in Lufeng will not help Wukan either hold elections or solve land disputes.

"The top officials have differing views on the policy for Wukan," said Cai Chongguo, deputy director of China Labour Bulletin, the Hong Kong-based non-governmental labour rights organisation. "Without a clear sign of support from them, any land deals will remain frozen."

Commentator Xu Zhiyuan said authorities were trying to regain control of the village. "Wukan was a miracle," Xu said. "It happened while China was in the throes of power struggles. But now the power of the central government has stabilised."

Deputy village chiefs Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao have indicated they will not be seeking re-election this year. Hong said he wanted to serve the villagers but the job had become too all-consuming. They both vowed to try their best to ensure it was a fair election.

Meanwhile, village chief Lin, who was swept into office on pledges of returning land, has been under fire for months for failing to make good on those promises.

He has faced repeated calls to step down by villagers who say he has kept them in the dark while negotiations proceeded with higher-up officials.

Lin denies the claims. "Who among the villagers is fit to judge whether or not we are transparent enough?" he said.

Lin said villagers fell broadly into four groups, depending on their views: some understood and appreciated the hard work of the new village committee; some had benefitted from the illegal land grab and so supported the old village committee. Others who supported Wukan's democracy had lost faith, while a final group wanted it to fail for personal reasons. Lin said this left the village divided with little chance of reaching a compromise.

He said his committee had tried its best to be transparent, citing the monthly release of village financial statements as an example.

He admitted not all talks with senior officials or companies had been publicised, but that was to avoid angering authorities, which would do more harm than good to the goal of resolving the land claims.

Zhuang said elected leaders should negotiate with the government to get the land back, "but now they are toeing a very tight official line".

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 the villagers, explaining to them where the obstacles lie and what are the plans to overcome them," Zhuang said. "This is the only way villagers will have faith in the leaders."