All Eyes on Wukan as Polls Open (Updated)

Villagers in Wukan cast their votes Saturday to fill seats on a new village committee, only a few months after violent protests over corrupt land grabs and the death of a detained villager drove away local officials and yielded concessions from Guangdong party leaders. From Channel News Asia:

A carnival atmosphere prevailed in Wukan on Saturday with mothers carrying their babies and elderly women tottering to the ballot box to cast their votes.

Villagers formed long lines outside makeshift voting booths in the playground of a local school to write up to seven names on a paper slip before placing it in a metal box.

“They’ve given us a democratic election, I’m so happy,” villager Zhang Bingchang said as he waited to vote.

Results were expected later Saturday after voting ended.

The Guardian spoke to one satisfied voter, while experts remained mixed on how the election would impact the rest of China:

Huang Jinqi was among the several thousand people in the small fishing village in southern Guangdong province to fill in a ballot for the seven-member village committee. The 63-year-old farmer said the process was going smoothly and he was satisfied with how it had been organised. “It is open and transparent,” he said.

Li Lianjiang, an expert on China’s local elections and protests at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “Hopefully local authorities in other places of Guangdong and even other provinces will refer to Wukan as a precedent when they face similar situations.”

Many experts said it was far too soon to say if political leaders would summon the will to replicate Wukan’s lessons elsewhere.

“Wukan so far is an exceptional case,” said Li Fan, who runs a private thinktank in Beijing that has been involved in local government experiments. “In this case, no matter how well the Wukan village elections proceed the impact on the development of grass-roots democracy is very limited.”

The U.S. government sent an observer to the polls, according to Reuters, and other activists from around the country showed up to highlight their own grievances. From BBC News:

“Wukan is an example for us,” Hua Youjuan, a village chief from Huangshan in eastern China where residents have also protested against corruption, told Reuters.

“What Wukan has achieved through its solidarity is something we can also learn from,” he added.

All eyes are on Xue Jianwan, the daughter of activist Xue Jinbo, whose death in December while in detention for his role in the protests served as a flashpoint in the standoff between villagers and security forces. Xue, a teacher whose family remains in dispute with local authorities over the circumstances of her father’s death, was forced out of her post at a primary school because she chose to run for deputy chairman of the village committee. From Radio Free Asia:

“The school has told me several times that if I plan to run for the village committee, then I must resign from my job,” she told the crowd at a meeting in the village square, outside the temple to the sea-goddess Matsu, whose legendary life was said to be dedicated to rescuing her male relatives from danger.

“My mind was made up that I would stand, so the school fired me, but I don’t care, because I think that it’s more meaningful to do something for the people of this village than to be a civil service teacher,” Xue said.

“I also want to do something for my father, to carry out his wishes.”

She said that while the loss of her job had been something of a relief to her, because she was no longer pressured into keeping a low profile, her family was concerned for their safety amid the continuing dispute over the cause of her father’s death.

Update: Xue Jianwan chose not to contest a run-off vote and conceded defeat in the race for deputy chairman, recently installed village party chief Lin Zuluan won a landslide victory for head of the village committee, and all other seats remain undecided pending a Sunday run-off. From Reuters:

“With this kind of recognition from the villagers, I’ll work doubly hard for them,” he said after addressing a cheering crowd and journalists gathered at night to hear the final results, with a turnout of nearly 80 percent.

Another protest leader Yang Semao was elected deputy village chief, while the five other seats will be filled in a run-off on Sunday that many expect to see a new guard of activists and reformists secure majority control of the committee under Lin.

Residents hope the common practice of powerful officials and strongmen controlling lucrative land deals will become a thing of the past.

“To get this far hasn’t been easy,” said Wu Ruidu, a broad-shouldered 37-year-old at the polling station. “I hope we can elect a village committee that truly works for the people’s interests and wins back every inch of land stolen from us.”

An observer and a voter both told The China Daily that the election went smoothly:

“This is a very solemn and regulated election,” said Zhu Jiangang, head of the social development research center at Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University.

“The procedural details are as good as what I have seen in many elections in the west,” said Zhu, also an election observer.

The voter turnout was 81.4 percent Saturday, sustaining the high levels seen during the last two elections and indicating the villagers’ enthusiasm for more open and transparent direct elections.

Local resident Yang Jinlu said Saturday’s voting was the most open, impartial and fair village committee election he has ever seen.

“It was the first time that I could cast a vote and follow my own will. Only in this way can we elect village heads who can do things for us,” Yang said.