Wukan Tests Democracy With Historic Vote

Residents of , the village in Guangdong province which garnered global attention in connection with violent land grab demonstrations late last year, went to the polls Wednesday to select a committee to oversee the election of village representatives on March 1. From The China Daily:

Wednesday’s voting will result in the selection of an independent election committee to supervise upcoming rounds of voting for villagers’ representatives and a new village committee, according to election procedures.

Eleven villagers who will make up the election committee will not be permitted to run for the village committee.

“This is to ensure fairness in the coming village committee election,” said Lin Zulian, the village’s Communist Party of China (CPC) secretary. Lin was appointed secretary following last year’s .

The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore, the first foreign reporter to breach the December police blockade of Wukan and report from within the village, reported today that the election went smoothly other than a “small scuffle at the beginning over access for Hong Kong journalists.” Even though today’s vote only serves as the prelude to the main election in March, its symbolism was evident:

“We had to make a big thing, a big show, out of it to underline its importance and to guarantee that it was all fair and transparent,” said Yang Semao, one of the chief organisers.

“Wukan has been in the dark for so many years; its elections always manipulated. It is the first time we have done this so we want to do a good job,” he added. In the past few days, several academics and students have also arrived in Wukan, partly to observe the proceedings, and partly to offer advice to the villagers.

“This is very meaningful,” said Chen Liangshan, 61, who used to work in one of the village’s temples. “I have already got the list of people I will vote for in my mind. I am glad to get the chance to choose people who will actually do something. This is the first time we have ever seen a ballot and we are excited about it.”

Mr Chen filled in his ballot, a sheet of A4 paper, at a table covered by a bright red tablecloth and deposited it in one of seven shiny aluminium ballot boxes. According to an official press release, he was one of 7688 eligible voters, with 1043 voting by proxy.

Villagers believe the election is China’s first fully transparent and democratic vote, Moore wrote yesterday, though Voice of America reported skepticism from some that corrupt officials would ultimately regain power. Today represents “a small step towards grassroots rights,” according to Reuters:

At the end of polling, villagers burned unused ballot papers and clapped in jubilation at a largely orderly and trouble-free poll with turnout well over 80 percent.

“This far exceeded our expectations,” said Yang Semao, a village elder who helped officiate. “It shows our passion for .”

Earlier, Xue Jianwan, daughter of village protest organizer , who died in police custody last year sparking further protests, visited her father’s memorial in the village square before voting. His body, which family members said bore marks of torture, has yet to be returned by authorities.

“This is something my father would have hoped for,” she said, bursting into tears after casting her ballot. “We just want to do our best to fulfill his final wishes.”

BBC News published a brief photo series with several shots from today’s election, including one of newly-installed village chief Lin Zulian, a leader of the protest movement who has taken charge of organizing the elections. The voting “marked the peaceful denouement” of the December standoff between villagers and armed police, according to the New York Times, which reported differing expectations among two Chinese observers:

Li Fan, an election expert at the World and China Institute in Beijing, thought the best one could hope for was an uncompromised election in Wukan. “It should be better given that all the media is watching,” he said. “If it is a good election, that will be unusual for China.”

But Lin Jiang, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said he hoped that the once-belligerent fishing village could serve as a high-profile counterpoint to those who argue that democracy is ill-suited for China’s rural citizenry. “Peasants in China may be undereducated but the election in Wukan shows that just because you don’t have a good education, doesn’t mean you can’t elect officials to represent your interests,” he said.

One expert called today’s election a “paradigm shift” in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. While the Chinese government censored nearly all information from the Internet amid the protests in December, The WSJ’s China Real Time Report noted the “unusually open-and borderline euphoric” dialogue about Wukan now permeating the Chinese blogosphere:

“This is a model,” Chinese real-estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang said Wednesday via the popular microblogging service , where searches for Wukan were producing nearly a million posts.

“The start of something new,” observed another user of the service.

For many, the election brought to mind one of Mao Zedong’s favorite revolutionary slogans/sayings: “If you want freedom and democracy, you have to fight for it yourself,” wrote one Internet user in the popular discussion forum Maoyan Kanren. “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”

Others saw in the elections a rebuke of people, like martial-arts star , who’ve questioned whether Chinese culture is compatible with democratic government.

“After this, whoever says Chinese people aren’t good enough for democracy, I’ll sue the bastard,” one particularly excited blogger promised on Sina Weibo.