Wukan! Wukan! Sign of Democracy?

By Patricia Sun, BASC Research Assistant

(Youtube video made by villagers of Wukan: 乌坎!乌坎!)

February 2, 2012 was a day worth remembering for villagers in Wukan (乌坎), Guangdong Province, China: after 5 months of protests, they cast ballots to elect a committee that would supervise future election of the village’s leaders. The influential protest burst out in late September as villagers failed to get sufficient compensation when CCP leaders sold the village’s farmland to real estate developers. The land dispute brought to the surface villagers’ long-lasting discontent towards CCP leaders of the village, Xue Chang (薛昌) and Chen Shunyi (陈舜意) and large-scale protest quickly became pervasive. As conflicts escalated, protesters elected thirteen representatives to negotiate with local government and requested a comprehensive investigation of the village’s land transactions, accounts and officials’ corruption. However, despite the efforts made by the municipal government to defuse the situation, conflicts between the local government and villagers escalated. In December, police abducted five of the representatives and put them in custody. The protest strengthened significantly after Xue Jinbo (薛锦波), one of the arrested protesters, died suspiciously three days after his imprisonment. The confrontation was eventually resolved in late December after the provincial government intervened by sending a working group to solve Wukan’s disputes, naming one of the leaders, Lin Zuluan (林祖銮) the party secretary of the village, and disbanding the original party branch and committee of the village.

The incident in Wukan and its eventual, seemingly peaceful, solution evoked mixed responses. As some celebrate the victory of the Wukan protesters and look forward to a democratic future in village-level governance, others cast doubts on the wider effects of Wukan’s protest. Given that direct election at the village level was officially implemented across rural China in the 1980s but still remains as a superficial procedure with limited substance, Wukan’s influence over other villages could be limited. More importantly, the victory in Wukan came at a high cost: a protester died and the ordinary life of the whole village was interrupted because of the protest for four months. The high costs of Wukan’s success signal that for other villages facing similar problems, the disputes are hard to solve without certain costs. That is to say, though Wukan’s villagers found their solutions, other villages should not expect the same offers will be provided. However, one cannot claim that the Wukan protests will have no effect. Even though direct effects of the incident on political reform might be limited, villagers in Wukan nevertheless set an example for other villagers seeking to resolve similar disputes over land rights and corruption. Moreover, considering the overwhelming responses of domestic and overseas media, the protests in Wukan will force provincial governments and central leaders to pay closer attention to similar problems elsewhere and hopefully to construct general solutions. At this point, maintaining stability (维稳), is still one of the most important tasks for governments at all levels, especially at the village and county levels. Amid a likely economic slowdown and annual outbreaks of thousands of protests, it is time for the central government to consider political reform. At very least they must consider making direct election at the village level become a reality so that villagers no longer need to fight for basic rights that are protected by the constitution.

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