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Rebellious Chinese village takes baby steps toward democracy

Bobby Yip / Reuters

A villager shows off his ballot before dropping it into the ballot box beside an election worker at a polling station at a school in Wukan village in Guangdong province on Feb. 1.

BEIJING – Wukan, a village in Guangdong province in southern China, is making headlines again – this time for taking the first steps toward open and transparent elections, which 7,688 villagers participated in on Wednesday.

Wukan was in the spotlight late last year for a high-profile protest by villagers against local officials believed to be illegally selling public land to developers. 

The 11-day rebellion was defused peacefully in late December after senior Communist Party officials reached an agreement with Wukan’s protest leaders – promising free elections and an investigation into the murky real-estate deals. They also promised to investigate the death of a protester who had died in police custody.

In another surprise, the local Communist Party appointed Lin Zuluan, one of the well-respected leaders of the defiant revolt, as the village party secretary. So Lin served as the chief in command for the first balloting that took place in the Wukan Elementary School Wednesday.

Villagers gathered in a festive scene to cast votes, for many the first time ever, to select an independent election committee to oversee upcoming ballots.  

Initial steps
Dozens of aluminum ballot boxes were placed around classrooms at the elementary school and students were mobilized to help count the ballots before they were distributed. Teachers helped elderly villagers who could not read or write.  A media counter was set up outside the school, and journalists were allowed in after registration.

“My biggest impression here at Wukan is that the atmosphere here is very different from any other Chinese villages,” one Chinese reporter at the scene wrote on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog. “The people here are very used to foreign journalists walking around filming. The village committee is open to everyone. Every family invites you to go to their house to stay, to eat or to drink tea. Brave and lucky Wukan villagers made their home different than any other Chinese villages with the same problems.”

Str / AFP - Getty Images

Residents register before casting their votes during the first-ever open democratic elections for the village committee in Wukan, in China's Guangdong province, on Feb. 1.

The election lasted nine hours (with a two-hour break). It began at 9 a.m. with the national anthem playing and fireworks being set off – a Chinese tradition during the new lunar year.

The final results came at 11 p.m.: Out of the 50 candidates, 11 (including one woman) were elected to be on the election committee.

The new members will be responsible for organizing an upcoming election for the Wukan Village Committee. They will devise a plan for the election process; mobilize and familiarize the villagers with the new plan; scrutinize and publish the candidate list; and, most importantly, organize the villagers to vote. The election is due to start in early March.

Not a new idea
Village-level elections are not a new concept to Chinese people, but seldom are they transparent or democratic. The Communist Party still maintains single-party authority across the government – from Beijing to the smallest village – and has absolute control.

There have been experiments with grassroots elections since the 1980s – the outcome is usually just pre-determined from above. Representatives are often appointed by higher-level government officials and the process is usually murky or manipulated.

In Wukan, the former village head had been in power for 40 years without ever being properly elected. He was accused of misappropriating public land and embezzling compensation money that belonged to villagers.

So many are hopeful Wukan’s experiment will spread.

“Wukan is a start of China’s local political reform! I hope to see a real self-rule in the countryside,” wrote a Weibo user going by the name “Orient leaping towards wealth."

Str / AFP - Getty Images

A Chinese man fills out his voting form as residents cast their votes during the first-ever open democratic elections for the village committee in Wukan, China on Feb. 1.

The user added, “Villagers that have both traditional legal culture and modern citizen spirit, they are the hope of China’s democracy.”
‘An experiment in democracy’
But others are not so sure about declaring a democratic victory in Wukan.

Chang Ping, a veteran journalist based in Hong Kong who has been closely following events in Wukan, is not so optimistic about its future.

“Their path is not going to be very smooth. The Guangdong government was smart about not cracking down with violence like other local governments, but that doesn’t mean they agree with complete self-rule. They will try to absorb Wukan into their old system, which they can still control. If that happens, the election will be the same election happening everywhere else,” Chang told NBC News in a phone interview. “Wukan’s protest has no end. Democracy doesn’t arrive just because you had three months of protest.”

However, Chang agreed that the event is revolutionary – if only as an exercise in how elections are supposed to work.

“Most of the elections we see are usually manipulated or the villagers don’t really know what their vote means. But Wukan villagers have their own understanding of voting, after their protest to finally obtain this right,” said Chang.  “It is an experiment in democracy, and it will affect other places in China.”

Related stories on Wukan:

Photo Blog: Chinese village takes halting democratic step

Rebellious Chinese village under siege by police

Villagers defiant as government creates new narrative

A contagion of conflict in China?