Wukan: Political Freedom – China style

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For those of you who missed this recent article I am reposting it below.  It is big news here in underground whispers and discussions but not in, as far as I can tell, major newspapers or TV broadcasts.  I do think this is how China will progress.  Not like the Arab springs with major and fairly sudden policy shifts.  But more gradual, ground up approach.

In courageous Chinese village, a growing thirst for democracy 

Residents of Wukan have hope for first real election

By Calum MacLeod USA TODAY

WUKAN, China — On a temple stage honoring a Taoist immortal, under a triple-tiered roof topped by dragons, Lin Zuluan made his modest bid for office.

“I’m an old guy, without much ability, but I do have a heart that keeps close to the villagers,” said Lin, 67, to the applause of hun­dreds of onlookers Wednesday.

They know he also has the courage to defy corrupt officials and hundreds of armed police after a violent standoff over land grabs, China’s leading cause of social unrest. The unusual victo­ries won by Lin and other protest leaders have turned Wukan, a coastal village in south China’s Guangdong province, into an un­likely beacon of democracy in this one-party state.

For two months, villagers have taken part in a remarkably free electoral process that culminates today with a poll for a new village committee. China’s Communist Party elites select the country’s top leaders but allow villagers to elect councils with power over local issues, such as village fi­nances and land use. Since they began in the 1980s, such elec­tions have often proved more symbolic than competitive, and are heavily influenced by upper­level party members.

Even so, villagers here believe something different is happening in their election.

“The banner called this our vil­lage’s fifth election, but this is the first real one, as the committee just elected itself in the past,” said electrician Zhu Zhonggui, 45, after stump speeches from Lin and 21 other hopefuls. “They were corrupt and not democratic. I have genuine hope now. It’s a new start for Wukan.” Analysts agree that this widely watched village may herald a new start for the country also.

“Wukan’s problems are com­mon in Chinese villages, but the way the Guangdong government tried to solve them this time is unusual,” said Li Jingpeng, a Pek­ing University expert on civil so­ciety.

For 10 days in December, the 13,000 people of Wukan were bracing behind barricades to keep out a Communist govern­ment that usually handles such challenges with brute force. The people had chased out all govern­ment representatives from the town after the officials had sold farmland to developers.

Villagers chose their own rep­resentatives, but security agents abducted four of them. Then the authorities backed down, choos­ing compromise instead.

“That’s why the ‘Wukan inci­dent’ is significant,” Li Jingpeng said.

Throughout China’s country­side, where half of its 1.3 billion people live, the authorities’ heavy hand usually stamps out dissent in the name of “maintaining sta­bility.” Just 3 miles north of Wu­kan, in Longguan village, people fear that may still happen.

“People are scared here, as they worry they will be punished for petitioning about our lost land,” said Chen Hanqiu, 43, a rice farm­er. “We must learn from Wukan. They were all brave and stood up to pursue justice and fairness.” That struggle cost the life of Xue Jinbo, whose death in police custody on Dec. 11 galvanized the Wukan protests.

“He always said, ‘If you do something, go out in front and do the best you can, don’t stand at the back,’ ” said his daughter Xue Jianwan, 21, a teacher who defied official pressure and stood for election Wednesday.

Wukan sends an urgent mes­sage to the rest of China about the need for smarter social manage­ment, said Yu Gao, China pro­gram director for Landesa, a Seat­tle-based group focused on land rights for the poor. “There are many, many other Wukans which are burning in silence, but at some point they will burst.” Private land ownership does not exist, but the state leases use rights to farmers and others. A Landesa survey released in Feb­ruary found 43% of villagers had land taken for non-agricultural purposes since the late 1990s, and 18% were forceful evictions. When land grabs occur they can cause major disturbances. Of Chi­na’s 180,000 “mass incidents” in 2010, 65% involved land confisca­tions, Yu said.

Wukan now buzzes with dis­cussions about electoral proce­dure. Hong Ruichao, 28, came home to Wukan in September to get married and planned to re­turn to his small trading business in Shenzhen city. Instead, he was swept up in the protests.

“I must stay here and fight for our rights,” said Hong, who cam­paigned for a slot on the village committee and plans to run the village’s first library. His sister is also running.

“I don’t mind if I receive no votes, but to get real democracy, I need to participate,” said Hong Ruiqing, 35.

Fisherman Wu Seqi, 48, is proud of Wukan’s boldness. But real success requires that villag­ers get their land-use rights or at least fair compensation.

“Unless the upper levels of government have free elections like us, how can they stop corrup­tion and improve our situation?” he asked.

China’s leaders aren’t ready to experiment in elections above the village level, said He Baogang, an expert on Chinese elections at Deakin University in Australia. However, Wukan “shows people are thirsty for the waters of de­mocracy,” he said.

China’s size and complexity preclude swift change, said aca­demic Li Jingpeng. “We have tak­en 30 years to do economic re­form. We will take at least 30 years to conduct some political reforms and achieve a modern, democratic system,” he said.

Contributing: Sunny Yang

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