A year after the villagers in Wukan held an open election after driving out corrupted officials, their newly-elected leaders told media that they regretted.
From September to December, 2011, residents at the fishing village of Wukan, Guangdong province, rioted and chased away local officials who sold village land illegally and failed to offer villagers proper compensation. It was a rare case in China where an anti-government protest resulted in not harsh retribution but a sort of victory – in early 2012, villagers were allowed to hold an election and vote for their new leaders. The case soon became the “Wukan model,” which, in the eyes of many reformists in China, is a milestone event in pushing forward grass-root democracy in China.
But last week, an interview by iFeng with a few villagers and their newly elected leaders showed that local people may see the “Wukan model” as a completed failed attempt of democracy.
Many of the new leaders of Wukan’s village committee are leaders of the anti-government protests two years ago. For example, the 70-something Lin Zhulian is the new director of village committee elected by his fellow villagers. Two year ago, it was him who often held public speeches and called for villagers to stand up against local government and get their illegally seized lands back.
One year after being elected, Lin told journalists that he regretted leading the protests.
“I’m afraid of receiving phone calls, afraid of seeing people, afraid of hearing my own door bell ring. Why? Because whatever I do or say now, people are able to find a way to blame me. I can neither speak the truth nor tell lies. Things are complicated. I need to pay attention to every single bit of detail to guard against potential harms.”
Land is at the core of all the problems in Wukan. Out of 120,000 acres of land illegally sold by former leaders, only 5000 are retrievable. Wukan’s new leadership managed to get back 3000 acres in the past year. But to the progress, one villager commented: “Of course we are unhappy. No one in Wukan is satisfied.”
According to villagers, their protests in 2011 were motivated by the hope that they can get their land back. But now with much of the illegally-sold land being reclaimed, the new leaders still failed to give back to the villagers. As one villager commented: “Money, land, anything works. But the villagers are given nothing so far.”
No outside developers dare to invest in Wukan due the protests in 2011, and the new leadership cannot agree on how to make profit out of the land. As a result, no one can benefit from the reclaimed land. The villagers requested an explanation.
In response to villagers’ doubt, Lin Zhulian commented: “[The villagers] are making trouble out of nothing. They complain about everything, sometimes for no reason at all, just for the sake of making trouble.”
Lin was not the only one who feels frustrated about the harsh reality in Wukan. Yang Semao, another elected member of the new village committee said: “There are only a total of 7 members allowed in the village committee. But during the protests, there were more then 10 or so influential figures. It’s impossible to include all of them in the village committee. They [those who were not elected] have been trying very hard to attack us [who were elected], to speak ill of us, and to block our work.”
Lin even pointed out that there may be a conspiracy against the current leadership: “I feel a lot of work pressure now. Some villagers are very difficult. A small group of people may be behind all these troubles…they want to overthrow this newly elected village committee.”
Looking back at his track on route to village democracy in the past 2 years, Lin summarized:
“I’m in deep regret. I didn’t benefit from the protests. Even now, I don’t benefit from anything. Why did I participate [the protests]? What if I didn’t step in this mess? Why did I seek trouble for myself?”
In fact, China has been implementing village-level elections since the 1980s, but no serious progress towards a successful democracy model has been made. Part of the reason is heavy government involvement in the election process. Another reason, and the more depressing reason, is that it’s often those well-connected, influential, or wealth families/individuals who bribe villagers that got elected.
The Wukan model may not be a successful model of grass-root democracy in China, but it nevertheless teaches a lot of people a lesson. As netizen 吴越春秋V commented: “Giving each person a ballot doesn’t mean democracy. Without separation of power and rule of law, votes are only tools of the dictators.”