By all accounts, a vote on February 1 to constitute an independent election committee in the village of Wukan in China’s southern Guangdong province was a success. Around 7,700 eligible voters in the village are reported to have cast their ballots to form the 11-member committee, which will organize and oversee elections in March for a new village committee.
For those who are not familiar with the saga of Wukan, we recommend a read-through of this report from The Telegraph by Malcolm Moore, the first foreign journalist on the scene back in December when Wukan villagers were locked in a standoff with local authorities stemming from disputes over land use, corruption and the death of a protest leader in police custody.
[ABOVE: A villager in Wukan casts a ballot in elections for an independent village election committee on February 1, 2012. Photo from QQ.com.]
For some Chinese, the example of Wukan has been inspirational, pointing the way to orderly, transparent and open democracy at the village level in China. And for some too, there is the more hopeful question that stands behind: Could this be a model, and an impetus, for broader democracy in China?
At its online section for Guangdong news, the official Xinhua News Agency noted that “more than 70 percent of eligible voters participated in the ballot.” The sense given by the Xinhua report — through accounts by villagers themselves, no less — was of an historic event.
Villager Lin Yongqiu (林永秋), 43, said that in his recollection, Wukan has never before held a selection process of this kind.
The report continued with this dialogue:
Reporter: Is this the first time you’ve ever held a ballot?
Villager: Yeah, my first time.
Reporter: How old are you?
Villager: Not far from 30. Forty.
Reporter: How many elections have you seen before?
Villager: This is the first time. The first time.
Reporter: What are you feeling right now about this election?
Villager: It’s great.
Posting on Sina Weibo on February 3, VIP user Zhang Nong (张农), a company boss in Beijing with more than 24,000 followers, wrote:
Wukan is not Beijing or Shanghai. It is not Guangzhou or Tianjin. Not Chongqing or Shenyang. It is not a major city where we might say that those of culture are numerous and few are illiterate. It is a tiny fishing village. But in such a little village as this, the villagers have begun to vote in elections, governing and taking care of themselves. Does this not tell us that Chinese in other areas can do this too? If Chinese in other areas cannot, then I want to ask everyone why they can’t.
Other voices were less enthusiastic.
True to its typically surly take on “foreign” views on China, the Global Times newspaper suggested, despite the presence of numerous Chinese voices like the above, that the glow over Wukan was being built up by “Western media” and that the level of freedom found in rural elections in China is already “extremely high”:
Over the past two days, Western media have highly praised the election in Wukan, and some have even said that it ‘sets a precedent for’ the process of democracy in China . . .
Perhaps it’s that Western journalists based in China do not understand the real situation in the countryside, and believe mistakenly that they have discovered “a new mainland” of grassroots democracy. For example, The Wall Street Journal wrote that while other villages do have elections, they have all been “strictly controlled by the Communist Party.” Perhaps this journalist has never before noticed village elections in China, or they have intentionally sought to accommodate the tastes of Western readers.
In fact, the level of freedom of elections in the countryside in China is extremely high, and they are not controlled by higher-level institutions. . .
Some Western media have raised the question of whether elections in Wukan will “spark further democratization” in other areas of China. This is even more interesting. If all villages fairly elect their village committees in this way, the whole country would eagerly look to this. But the precondition is that we cannot send armed police to ensure order at every village election, and have the whole society watching and monitoring, because our society clearly cannot consume resources to such an extent.
One of the strongest voices reading events in Wukan as an important precedent on February 3 was The Beijing News, which made Wukan the subject of its lead editorial.
The following is a translation of the lead editorial in the February 3, 2012, edition of The Beijing News
“Open and Transparent Elections Open New Chapter for Wukan“
February 3, 2012
A smooth process of selection of the village election committee in Wukan [this week] is a declaration that Wukan is now on the path to legitimate elections, self-governance and a return to normal life; from this we can see that the people of Wukan are willing and able to voice their demands within the framework of the law, and to adequately exercise their rights.
On February 1, Wukan Village in Guangdong’s Lufeng City welcomed the excitement of election day. For many villagers, this was the first time they had voted in an election. Villagers intending to leave [the village] for jobs made a point of staying on in order to cast their ballots. Villagers who were motion challenged were pushed to the polling station in wheelchairs by their relatives. And ultimately, an 11-member village election committee was chosen, which will now be responsible for organizing new elections for the village committee.
From the original mass incident [involving villagers] to the resumption of self-governing elections, from the intervention of the provincial Party and government leadership to the formation of the village election committee, the evolutionary process of the Wukan incident has been a focus all along of outside attention. Without a doubt, the emphasis on “supremacy of the law” (法律至上) on the part of the Party and government since they intervened in the situation played an important role in making possible a favorable transition in this case. Now, the emergence of the village election committee is a declaration that Wukan is now on the path to legitimate elections, self-governance and a return to normal life. This is something people from all walks of society are happy to see, not just the villagers of Wukan.
After the Wukan incident occurred, the outside world turned its attention [on Wukan], and there were many different readings [of the situation]. Some even tacked various labels on to this incident. Now, the people of Wukan have shown through transparent and open elections that all along they were voicing their legitimate interests and pursuing their own rights. But looking back on this incident, this entire process has provided so much that calls on us to draw out its lessons, and it has shown us the path toward achieving grassroots democracy in the countryside.
The root of the Wukan incident lay in the resentment some villagers felt over how village cadres had handled such issues as land, [village] finances and elections. This resentment was ultimately about the rights and interests of the villagers. In dealing with interest disputes, what attitude should the local government take? If the local government is able to correctly assess interest conflicts and provide the people with legitimate channels for seeking effective mediation, then various interests can be balanced at a much lower cost and conflict avoided before the incident can develop [into something more serious].
The efficient, transparent and orderly selection of the election committee in Wukan village stands as a reminder to some government officials that they must trust that the people at the grassroots, including the villagers of Wukan, are willing and able to voice their demands within the framework of the law, and to adequately exercise their rights. In the words of Wukan Party branch chief Lin Zuluan (林祖銮): “So long as things are done according to policies and relevant laws and regulations, the ordinary people [of Wukan] support them. And the elections to come will continue in this spirit.”
In this process, the most important thing for the government is to maintain “supremacy of the law”. Particularly in facing real situations of conflict, the government must not only deal according to the law with illegal conduct, but must more importantly protect the legitimate rights of the people according to the law. Everything that has so far happened in Wukan has been within the framework of policies and laws. And this illustrates that so long as the system is respected, and the rights of the people are respected, many conflicts are entirely avoidable. This message has significance not just to Wukan alone.
One month from now, Wukan will hold elections for the village committee. So long as the principles of transparency and openness continue to hold, with full respect for the rights of the villagers of Wukan, the people of Wukan will be able to elect the village chief (能办事) they feel in their hearts is most “capable and can get things done.” And these normalized elections will also ensure that Wukan steps forward toward a better future.