Wukan, a village of 20,000 in southern China’s Guangdong province, received international media attention after its residents staged a series of protests against the local government, accusing its officials of corruption and taking their farmland. The protests led to a three-month standoff that ended peacefully in December 2011 after central government representatives agreed to dismiss officials, redistribute land and allow for an election.
Wukan village’s future under threat as ex-cadres retake party reins
New round of elections also clouded by recent appointments of old regime bosses
Wukan’s old guard are slowly retaking control of the village government, sparking fears of a return to the old regime where residents lived in fear of land grabs and where corruption was rampant – which a landmark democratic election two years ago sought to wipe out.
Last Friday, Xue Yubao, one of the former village bosses, was appointed by higher-level authorities in Donghai township to be the next deputy party secretary, while four of his associates will also be part of the nine-member Wukan party committee, according to deputy village chiefs Hong Ruichao and Yang Semao.
Hong and Yang were among the leaders of the grass-roots revolt in 2011.
Hong said he felt betrayed as he was kept in the dark about the new appointments and was only informed at a village meeting.
"No one told us what the meeting was about and we were shocked to know the old cadres were returning to office,” he said.
The eastern Guangdong fishing village, with a population of about 20,000 people, garnered international attention when hundreds of villagers rallied against land grabs by corrupt officials and, in an unprecedented victory, were allowed to directly vote for the leaders on the seven-seat village committee. On March 3, 2012, six of the protest’s forerunners were elected.
The contentious appointments of ex-deputy village chief Xue and the other cadres came ahead of a scheduled new round of elections in Wukan, after the democratically elected representatives’ tenure ends on March 6.
However, even the upcoming elections are uncertain. Lin Zuluan, the democratically elected village chief, said he was still waiting for the order for elections from Lufeng city authorities.
Other committee members say they have no knowledge of whether the upcoming elections will be held.
Yang, the deputy village chief, said he was worried that the party committee would take over the village committee by expelling its leaders. The party committee’s direct influence on the village panel – whose membership used to closely mirror that of the party committee’s – dissipated after the 2011 vote.
Yang has started petitioning village representatives to finally hold an assembly – which he said Lin has been remiss at holding – and set the date for the elections.
Xiong Wei, a Peking University legal scholar who advised the villagers during their first election, said the assembly hall of village representatives should be held soon, based on the grass-roots election law.
Eighty-two out of 108 democratically elected representatives – tasked to monitor the village committee – have endorsed the petition, according to Yang. However, Lin and two other committee members refused to sign it.
“We should hold four assembly halls of village representatives each year, but Lin Zuluan made no such arrangement of any kind since the end of 2012,” he said. “The village affairs has been in chaos ever since.”
“Now I think Lin is just a political swindler,” Yang added.
Lin has been under fire for months for what leaders and villagers say is a lack of transparency in the committee’s proceedings. But Lin denies these charges, saying he was trying not to anger the higher authorities, which would do more harm than good to the village.
Another representative, surnamed Chen, expressed anger at the appointment of Xue and others, adding that Wukan would have no future if the cadres succeeded in retaking control of the village.
Guo Weiqing, a political science professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said it would be crucial to work out a system to monitor officials in office and crack down on graft.
Guo said it was also important for future leaders to focus on Wukan’s economic interests, particularly what will happen to the land confiscated by previous governments. The assets remain frozen, pending stilted negotiations for a compromise between the central government and Wukan leaders.
“Villagers are not interested in democracy if there is no economic interest," Guo said.