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Update From Wukan: The Limits of Protest and Democracy

Protests in Wukan, December 2011 (Photo: AFP)

After wrangling the attention of the international media and shaking up the local political order, the citizens of Wukan Village, Guangdong Province reaped a not insignificant reward for their bold dissent when villagers voted for new community leaders last Saturday. Michael Wines of The New York Times reports:

It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China’s opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan’s struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders. “This is by far the most transparent election we’ve ever had in this village,” said Yang Semao, who was elected the deputy director of the new village committee. “The past ones were all fake democracy.”

The events of mutiny that shook Wukan Village last December have come to represent a not unusual, but unusually well-publicized, breach of Chinese social order. Despite these subsequent democratic proceedings resulting from the protests—a furious uproar that turned into calmly-mediated government intervention—the enduring symbolism of Wukan may not be of any substantial systematic change or departure from the corruption that drove villagers to take a stand in the first place. Writes Wines:

Yet on Saturday, there was fresh evidence at every turn that a single free election would be hard-pressed to change the system that spawned Wukan’s problems, much less inspire national rulers to follow its example. Wukan’s land scandal reaches into layers of higher governments whose territory includes the village, and who wield authority over village leaders. Protest leaders charge that crony relationships within the bureaucracies allowed the land sales to take place… Xue Jianwan, 40, the daughter of the dead land activist, Xue Jinbo [allegedly killed while representing Wukan Village to government officials], had been nominated for a seat on the new committee. She said that officials from another administrative center, Lufeng, appeared last Wednesday at her home. “They said I should not give up my teaching career,” she said in an interview. “They said, ‘Think twice about running for office.’ “

For the time being though, it would appear that Wukan villagers are generally content with the election proceedings and outcomes. That being said, many—both experts and locals—feel that the events in Wukan won’t carry much weight to impact other such events, or influence government policies on any larger scale.

“It’s the triumph of hope over experience,” Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar of Chinese domestic politics, said of speculation that Wukan could become a national model. “Reform in China doesn’t start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward. “Wukan is an attractive instance of what’s possible. But it’s not even probable.”


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