A vice-minister of civil affairs yesterday refuted an argument that the "Wukan model" of democratic elections had failed in the fishing village over the past year. But she also tried to downplay the poll's significance by claiming that direct elections are prevalent in rural China.
Amid reports that Wukan villagers have been losing patience with their elected leaders over the slow progress to reclaim stolen land, Jiang Li said that "sorting out economic interests [in Wukan] takes time" and would require the collective wisdom of village leaders and the support of the villagers.
But Zhang Jianxing , a Wukan villager in Guangdong province, lamented that Jiang was trying to avoid the central issue of land-rights disputes, while trying to undermine the significance of Wukan's democratic struggle. "Jiang's claim was highly biased," Zhang said.
"She failed to mention that Wukan's predicament was actually the result of unresolved land problems."
Anti-corruption protests began in September 2011 after local officials sold land to developers without adequately compensating villagers.
The protests escalated into a protracted stand-off with the government over the following months, resulting in the expulsion of village heads who had held power for decades. Police also besieged the town.
But today, local villagers say they have won back only 233 of 446 hectares of land that was stolen, and many fear that the rest is gone forever. They also accuse the governments of Lufeng county and Shanwei city, which oversee Wukan, of being reluctant to resolve the land disputes.
Yang Semao , a deputy village chief, asked for extended sick leave last week, saying he was "psychologically near collapse" after local land and resources authorities told him that the villagers' request to reclaim 8.27 hectares of land "was reaching an impasse".
Chen Suzhuan , an elected village committee member, recently told the South China Morning Post that she felt betrayed by government officials who backtracked on their pledges to return the stolen land.
Zhang also said Jiang was trying to obscure the uniqueness of Wukan's fight for an "open, transparent and fair" election that had not been seen on the mainland in decades.
This accusation came after Jiang told journalists that the Wukan elections were "not an exceptional case" in terms of grass-roots democracy, as 98 per cent of 589,000 village committees were formed through direct polls.
"Most provinces have carried out eight or nine rounds of elections for village committees, with about 95 per cent of farmers participating in such elections," Jiang said, adding that about 600 million villagers were expected to vote in the latest round of village committee elections between 2011 and this year. "This would be the largest scale of direct elections in the world," Jiang said.
Mainland laws allow direct elections for village councils in rural areas, but they are rarely enacted in a fair and transparent manner.
"For decades, there have been no other villages like Wukan in terms of the way the election was carried out, and we fought so hard for it," Zhang said in decrying Jiang's comments.