Chinese Villagers Hold Free Elections But Real Change Unlikely
Back in December, residents of Wukan in China’s southern Guangdong province seized control of their fishing village of 13,000, following the death of an elected village leader, 42-year-old Xue Jinbo, while in police custody. The villagers had been protesting since September over what they said was a secret decision to sell a large tract of village land, including much of their farmland, to a Hong Kong-listed developer, Country Gardens, one of the largest real-estate developers in China. The local Communist officials and police were driven from the town and the standoff lasted for ten days until Guangdong officials agreed to address the villagers’ grievances and elect a new village committee.
Elections were held last Saturday, with 6,000 out of Wukan’s 8,000 eligible voters casting pink ballots into steel boxes, says the New York Times. Lin Zuluan, a retired businessman who led the protests, was elected as the new village committee’s director. Yang Semao, who was elected the deputy director, described the election as the “most transparent” ever in the village, the results of previous elections inevitably being “controlled by cliques, or the winners all but handpicked by Communist Party officials.”
But observers are dubious about the election as a sign of any real change in authoritarian China. The villagers believe that freely elected leaders stand the best chance of getting their land back. But as the New York Times points out, “Wukan’s land scandal reaches into layers of higher governments whose territory includes the village, and who wield authority over village leaders.” 21-year-old Xue Jianwan, the daughter of the dead activist Xue Jinbo, was nominated for a seat on the new committee; prior to the election, officials from another administrative center, Lufeng, appeared at her house in the evening and told her to “think twice about running for office.” She is not pursuing an inquiry into her father’s death, not wishing to “disturb [her] father’s body just to punish the thugs who did this.”
Wukan’s success, if that is the right term, seems exceptionable, as was a protest last August of thousands in Dalian in northern China that led to officials saying they would shut down a hazardous chemical factory. China’s authorities seem to be allowing for some protests, and resolutions to them, while maintaining strict central control. Residents of another village, Shuidian, were beaten when they tried to march to the administrative center of Leizhou to protest the sale of their land. After villagers from Panhe in Zhejiang Province, north of Guangdong, began a protest like that last December in Wukan, officials “systematically round[ed] up protest leaders” and banned journalists from the village.
Meanwhile, China is increasing military spending by 11 percent. Even as the country continues to enjoy seemingly unstoppable economic growth, analysts note that inequality between the haves and the haves not in China and other Asian countries is rising more than ever. Such income disparity is apparent in the struggle in Wukan, with peasant farmers fighting to get back their land, sold by government officials to far-away Hong Kong developers with who knows what plans. Will the people of Wukan be able, under the leaders they elected, to get back their land? What will they make their livelihood from without it?
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Photo by Alex Schwab