The Wukan way

An election in a Chinese village symbolises much more

The Wukan way

Hong Kong wonders if it will one day be eclipsed economically by neighbouring cities in mainland China. But has the enclave of 7 million just been outpaced politically by a fishing village of 10,000 across the border?

The elections on March 3 in Wukan, after months of violent protest at illegal land grabs and corruption, have stirred debate around the country. Protest leader and respected elder, Lin Zulian, was elected village chief by a landslide 6,205 of 6,800 votes (there are 8,000 registered voters in the village.)

In contrast, just 1,200 people will vote for Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive on March 25.

iSun Affairs, a Chinese language magazine, drew up a detailed infographic comparing the two situations, and contrasting billionaire voters of Hong Kong like Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau-kee with Zhuang Songkun and Zhang Bingcha, fisherman and farmer respectively in Wukan.

It’s an ironic situation. Why have the authorities allowed in Wukan what is not yet permitted in Hong Kong – an election based on much wider, local suffrage?

Some believe that Wukan shows that sections of the Chinese leadership, particularly the more politically open-minded southerners led by Guangdong party boss Wang Yang, is ready to experiment with real, albeit local, democracy.

As Lin, the new village chief who must now sort out a host of messy land disputes, said to Century Weekly magazine: “Different voices are good, not harmful for us, because they’re like a mirror from which we can learn a lot.” Century Weekly then wrote: “From this election, we can see the democratic election of ‘one man, one vote’ does not exacerbate village opposition, but in large part defuses social anger, eases social conflicts and expresses villagers’ will.”

The People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, was a little more guarded, saying, “In Wukan, the initial mistake of the local government was their failure to address the villagers’ reasonable demands and interests, so that a rational petition escalated into drastic action.”

In other words – this was a mess that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

Hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of the electoral process…

Yet the days when the People’s Daily sets the media agenda are drawing to an end. Others also seem keener to embrace a more open voting process, seeing signs of hope for more elections in the future.

After all, last week premier Wen Jiabao told the closing news conference of the National People’s Congress that the country needed to continue political reforms if it was not to stagnate. Society had grown too complex to be run the way that it always had been run, Wen suggested.

“Chinese people are qualified to engage in democracy,” asserted the headline in the China Youth Daily, a mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League (and a power base for President Hu Jintao) subsequent to the Wukan election.

“Farmers at the lowest level of society and with the lowest cultural level have been paying attention to the details of democracy,” marvelled one netizen, cited by the newspaper. The Youth Daily concluded: “This shows that the Chinese people are qualified to engage in democracy and those who question the democratic quality of the people can shut up.”

Interviewed by Phoenix TV, Wang Yang himself was careful not to get swept up in the enthusiastic public mood. Wukan was “no innovation,” but merely “a very solid job in implementation,” he suggested, amid a tense political scene ahead of this year’s leadership change.

But others are wondering where else local elections might now be permitted. That includes in Hong Kong, where there has been talk of universal suffrage for the next elections for Chief Executive, set for 2017.

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