Historically the southern province of Guangdong has acted as a bellwether for change in China. It was in Guangdong that the founder of the modern Chinese nation Sun Yat-sen launched his first campaign against the Qing rulers at the turn of the last century. In 1992 it was in Guangdong again that Deng Xiaoping affirmed the reforms that have since transformed the Chinese economy.
Now the question is whether recent events in Guangdong could foretell another national shift – this time a political one.
Last Wednesday the residents of Wukan, the fishing village that erupted in mass protest last year (see WiC133), held a vote to choose a local electoral committee.
On the face of it, it sounds like a fairly minor event. But in the Chinese context it is being awarded much more significance as a free and fair process – according to participants – which appears to have been conducted with the blessing of the Communist Party.
In theory villagers across China have had the right to select their leaders – the eventual goal of last Wednesday’s poll – since 1987. But in reality that process is tightly controlled by local Party officials or carried out with minimal participation, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Wukan won the right to stage the election after a widespread protest last year that saw government officials and police chased out of the village by residents angry that communal land had been sold without their knowledge.
Instead of sending in paramilitaries, a practice employed at similar incidents, Guangdong’s Party secretary Wang Yang dispatched a team of high-level negotiators to talk to the protestors. They asked for the existing village committee to be disbanded and the formation of a new one, chosen by a popular vote.
“I wonder if a single spark can set the prairie on fire,” weibo user Xinweidongshenyiyuan wondered on his account. Netizen Cecamaowo simply said: “This is the first time I have ever seen a real election on the Chinese mainland.”
Surprisingly, some of the state media has also been presenting the vote as a small but potentially historic event.
Xinhua reported that “unlike in the past when elections were, at best, a show of hands behind closed doors” some 70% of Wukan’s citizens had been able to cast a vote. The Beijing News agreed that the election served as “a reminder to some government officials that they should trust the people at the grassroots”.
In fact, experimentation with the wider electoral process is not confined to Wukan. In WiC17, for example, we reported on how Shenzhen had directly elected a local official in a first for a major city – in that case, mind you, only Party members could cast their votes.
The Global Times was also keen to make clear that this was a domestic matter, which should not be misinterpreted by the international press.
Overseas journalists were already getting their facts wrong, it claimed. “It seems that the Western media are using Wukan’s election to criticise China’s democracy. They are attempting to erase all the achievements China has made in improving its democracy by regarding Wukan’s election as the first and only one to have taken place. China cannot be understood by focusing on the small details, something Western media would do well to appreciate.”
But in an indication that Wukan’s example could be inspiring others, the World Journal, a Chinese language paper in North America, reports that a village in Zhejiang is also protesting. On February 1 the disgruntled residents of Panhe took to the streets carrying banners saying “Down with Corrupt Officials”. The website TeaLeafNation is calling the ongoing demonstration “Wukan 2.0” – in both cases the villagers were angered by sales of their land by local government.
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