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China: Wukan Elections Continue and Inspire

Residents of the Guangdong village of Wukan, who led protests late last year against local authorities over farmland grabbing and corruption, took a key step toward democracy earlier this month with freely-held elections of their village leaders.

More than 6,000 Wukan residents cast votes in a February 11 election for new village representatives, the second of a three-part process which began February 1 with the election of an independent election oversight committee. Phase three, set for March 1, will see the election of a new village committee which will remain under the supervision of the 107 representatives elected in phase two, among whom is the daughter of the village's deceased former representative Xue Jinbo.

Xiong Wei, founder of the Beijing New Enlightenment Research Centre and a researcher at Peking University, explained the election on Sina Weibo:

乌坎11日将以村民会议的形式,以村民小组为单位一人一票选举村民代表,由村民代表组成村民代表会议,是乌坎村的权力机构。

On 11 February, the villagers gathered to form groups and each group as a bloc elected their group representative under the one-man-one-vote system. The group representatives form a village representative committee, which becomes the authority of Wukan.

乌坎,正在探索村民自治新路,建立权力互相制衡的村民自治新机制。村民代表会议是决策和监督机构,村委会是执行和小决策机构。

Wukan is still exploring a new model of autonomy and establishing new powers to balance the new authority of villagers. Village representatives serve as a decision-making and monitoring mechanism, while the village committee is an executive body with minor decision-making authority.

A new democratic generation in China

This grassroots-level election experiment has become an important symbol representing a new kind of democracy in China, called even by some as a new rural democracy movement. One observer of Wukan's election has recorded some thoughts on his blog from Lin Zulian, a local organizer and newly-elected village representative:

村民林边说,这次选举是四十年来第一次,过去乌坎从来就没有真正选举过,都是上级说了算,村民对选举很陌生,这回有关选举知识海报贴满了全村,就是要民众知道选举程序。

This is the first election in over the past 40 years. In the past, Wukan never had a real elections; village representatives were always nominated by the Party leaders. To the villagers, an election is a very new and unfamiliar thing. This time, we have many election posters spread around the whole village; this lets the villagers understand more about what an election is and what the election process should be.

Prominent public intellectuals have also described the Wukan election process as good news for China. One well-known commentator, Yuan Weidong, has written:

今天终于传来好消息,村民们靠公正、透明的选举,选出了村选举委员会的11名成员,这个意义在中国的乡村、乃至在全中国来说是划时代的,因为选举的程序的公正、公平、透明,是选举的关键, 今天广东的乌坎村将政治变革再度改变中国。

Wukan villagers elected a new 11-member election committee via a fair, transparent election system. This is a new democratic generation in Chinese villages and all Chinese cities. Fairness and transparency are the key values in an election. Political change today in Wukan will change China in the future.

Election problems in the past

Yuan also summarizes the three main problems which have been present in elections in China for several decades:

归其原因有三:一、“上级”越俎代庖,本是村民自己的事情,上级却要乱插手,违规安排自己的人;二、“上级”认为村民素质低,不适宜民主选举,岂不知民主本身是最简单的东西,它同仁的生命一样是与生俱来的;三、怕基层不听话,一些政策无法落实。

First, Communist party leaders always disrupt and manipulate each election. Second, the same leaders believe that villagers are neither knowledgeable enough nor qualified to elect their own representatives, arguing that the democratic election system therefore does not suit China's villages. Third, Party leaders worry that villagers will lack sufficient obedience, making some policies hard to implement.

On Sina Weibo, user Zhen Puhong has asked whether the Wukan elections in fact hold as much significance as many believe.

【乌坎选举的实质意义有多大?】1、中国村级选举从村民组织法的角度看本来就是自主自治的,关键是被党机构(乡镇)党官(村支书)控制甚至用黑手把持候选人;2、村务实际上书记说了算,村长通常要么无权要么同流合污;3、乌坎选举中似依然是党支部决定并发布选举事宜见下图,选委会有多大作用?

From the perspective of the villagers’ Organization law, China’s village-level elections should be self-governed and have autonomy. The key problem is that the candidates are controlled by Party leaders; they even use illegal methods to manipulate elections. Second, village affairs are managed according to each village secretary’s directions, meaning village representatives either have no power or become complicit in corruption. Third, in the Wukan election, it seems the party is still playing the role of setting the election agenda. Just how significant will this election prove to be?

From the comments on Zhen's post, other Weibo users have written:

为人民币服务GOV:回复@清心9901:没有其他意思,我觉得什么叫村民自治,就应该脱离党的控制,因为不是你选的。否则,即使村长选了,还是没有实权,最后权力架空,选举就没有意义。 (2月9日 15:19)

What self-governance means is that the villagers should be free from Party control. Otherwise, even though a village representative is elected, he still won't have any power, making the election pointless.

疯头总动员://@新启蒙熊伟: 是的,我和林先生经常讨论的就是权力互相制问题。 //@博格郑甫弘:民主选举中程序正义至关重要。领袖很重要,但民主保障的关键是不能让个人超越体制程序。有林祖銮乌坎村民是幸运的,换了人呢?

In a democratic election, fair process is an important matter. Leadership is also very important, however, to secure democracy; the crucial factor is in keeping any one individual from overstepping institutional procedures.

Wukan’s effect on Zhejiang

Wukan, having been allowed to elect its own leaders, may already be having the effect of encouraging other southern villages to copy the Wukan model.

In Zhejiang province, residents in both the east and west ends of Panhe village in the city of Wenzhou have apparently been inspired by the Wukan uprising to become a second village to have evicted local authorities. Panhe's 5,000 villagers have been protesting against illegal land requisition since February 1 following years of the government's “legal” selling off, without any advance notice, of parcels of their land. Reportedly, all farmland sold off by Panhe's village representatives since 2006 has brought zero compensation to the rightful owner farmers and villagers.

From discussions of Panhe on Sina Weibo:

@城市农民70000:乌坎模式影响下,浙江苍南县泮河村的村民自治随之而来,这预示着一种国际大环境下的趋势在我国不可阻挡。

Influenced by the Wukan Model, Panhe village’s self-governance is coming. This predicted global trend in our country is unavoidable.

@金鹰03:广东烏坎村的问题刚解决,浙江又一个乌坎–泮河村又爆出问题,不少地方矛盾尖锐。

Just as Wukan village in Guangdong has solved their own land problem, now in Zhejiang, another Wukan—Panhe village—has exploded. There are many local conflicts and problems.

  
Many protests happen in China every day.

For some insight into the official perspective on these democratic developments, Niu Wenyuan of China's State Council, is quoted as having said in a seminar held in Guangzhou earlier this month that:

【国务院参事牛文元:中国去年日均发生五百起群体事件】 http://t.cn/zOZ7Hbh “去年,广东发生了乌坎事件。实际上,2011年,中国平均每天发生500起群体性事件,这意味着,现今社会容易失序,民众心理容易失调”国务院参事牛文元在给干部讲座时,直言不讳。

In 2011, there was on average around 500 “mass incidents” such as protests, riots and social unrest in China every day. This means that social order and norms are declining and that citizens are more prone to psychological disorders.

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