By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
Three years ago the people in the village of Wukan overthrew the government in violent revolt to protest against sales of misappropriated land. The provincial government agreed to allow a democratic election, and Wukan was viewed by some as a possible harbinger of reform.
Now a new village election is nearing, but the tale it tells is a familiar one of control and corruption.
In 2011, Wukan, a village of 20,000 in Guangdong province, was the scene of unusual drama when villagers overthrew local leaders to protest illegal confiscations of their land. After a stand-off with local police, the provincial government agreed to investigate the claims of illegality and to permit residents to elect a new village committee.
Village elections have been around for decades in China. But in the 2012 election in Wukan, protest leaders won, replacing the overthrown village government in a result tolerated by Beijing. A new election, the first since 2012, will be held on March 31 and April 1, but this time the Chinese Communist Party is reasserting control, stifling local protests and handing out money to the village in the interest of “stability maintenance.”
The villagers, meanwhile, are disillusioned by their failure to regain most of the land that the former village government illegally seized. Since the 2012 election, there has been no progress on the land claims, and hopes that “democracy” might change the situation have faded.
Last month, the leader of the 2011 revolt, who was elected as village leader in 2012, said he “regrets” getting involved.
In January, it was reported that the village committee was not disclosing details about discussions with higher-level officials, and that one leader of the revolt had “lost faith” in democracy. Earlier this week that leader, Zhuang Liehong, spoke in New York, declaring that he would seek political asylum in the U.S. as someone who “would be the target of political persecution” if he didn’t leave China.
Earlier this month, it was reported that a village boss ousted in 2011 will return to Wukan as deputy Party secretary, appointed by authorities in Donghai township, the next level of government above Wukan.
The bad news keeps coming as the new village election nears. The village has just elected an 11-member committee that will organize and oversee the election, but one man interviewed said three of the candidates for the 11-member committee had “vested interests” in the disputed land sales.
More recently reported news carries mixed messages: On March 15, Yang Semao, a deputy chief of the current Wukan village committee who had helped to lead the original protest in 2011, was arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in village projects. But he was released on bail the next day. Xinhua also reminded readers that after the 2012 elections, several former Wukan officials were expelled from the CCP for corruption and “election-rigging.”
The same report stated that 333 hectares of land that had been “illegally transferred, allotted or left idle” had been returned to the village over the past two years. But this is not fresh news: The return of 824 acres— almost exactly equivalent to the “330 hectares”—was announced in February 2013. The report closed by saying provincial and city governments have “also earmarked tens of millions of yuan for improving the villagers’ livelihood.”
On March 19, another deputy village chief elected in 2012 was arrested and will be investigated for alleged bribery in connection with public projects. The report on the arrest repeated the statements about the release of land and the allocation of funds to the village.
The Party seems to be trying to balance the pursuit of the leaders of the original revolt with reminders to the villagers that some of their demands have been met. These most recent reports have a curious ring, because the Party seems to be repeating year-old news to make it relevant today. Do Party-state officials hope they can pay to erase memories of the revolt and the loss of the land? For what purpose would the newly allocated funds be used? There is no mention of paying the original owners of the land.
Some Chinese commentators, perhaps echoing the Party line, do not view the Wukan protests as a call for democracy. One noted that “successful [economic] bottom-up efforts” need central government support to succeed, while political reform must be “top-down.”
A Fudan University professor argued that “Wukan’s true problem is the capitalization of land, but media hyped it as democracy.” And a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou said the land issues depend on a “compromise between the central government and Wukan leaders,” adding that “villagers are not interested in democracy if there is no economic interest.”
Regardless of the outcome of the election later this month, Wukan seems fated to be remembered, if at all, as a failed attempt to remedy the illegality of village leaders, with no prospect of being used as a model for reducing well-known social contradictions in rural China.