Democracy Fails to Thrive in Wukan

Following widespread protests in 2011 in Wukan, Guangdong over a government land-grab, the provincial government agreed to elections to nominate new village leaders. Despite initial enthusiasm over what was perceived as a “wholly transparent, completely open, democratic election,” and a watershed moment for grassroots democracy in China, reality has been a bit messier. Villagers have been discouraged by the new leaders’ failure to resolve their problems, while new village leaders are themselves now acknowledging that the experiment in Wukan has failed. From Off Beat China:

…Last week, an interview by iFeng with a few villagers and their newly elected leaders showed that local people may see the “Wukan model” as a completed failed attempt of democracy.

Many of the new leaders of Wukan’s village committee are leaders of the anti-government protests two years ago. For example, the 70-something Lin Zhulian is the new director of village committee elected by his fellow villagers. Two year ago, it was him who often held public speeches and called for villagers to stand up against local government and get their illegally seized lands back.

One year after being elected, Lin told journalists that he regretted leading the protests.

“I’m afraid of receiving phone calls, afraid of seeing people, afraid of hearing my own door bell ring. Why? Because whatever I do or say now, people are able to find a way to blame me. I can neither speak the truth nor tell lies. Things are complicated. I need to pay attention to every single bit of detail to guard against potential harms.”

Tea Leaf Nation has more on other problems now confronting Wukan:

Some of Wukan’s problems are not news. In September, 2012, several Western media outlets revisited Wukan and reported on the slow progress of its democratic experiment. Then, areas of dissatisfaction included villagers’ “expectations gap” between the promise of democracy and its messy reality, meddling by county-level governments, and suspicions that the whole enterprise was simply a political move by Wang Yang, the former Guangdong province Communist Party chief who was known to eye a seat on China’s elite Politburo Standing Committee.

Additional obstacles have now begun to emerge. Wukan is dealing with a dearth of outside investment due to concerns over its political stability, a village leadership that lacks governing experience, and in-fighting within the village administration itself. As one villager told a reporter, “All of Wukan is dissatisfied. First, we villagers overthrew the corrupt officials, but the new administration has done nothing [to get land back]; they got nothing back and have not given us an answer…We’ll take anything [at this point].”

Surveying unbought luxury residences whose bare porches had begun to sprout grass, reporter Jin Song concluded that “currently many investors do not dare to invest in Wukan…because there is still no consensus about whether to lease the recovered land or to transfer it, the village committee is unable to monetize it.”

[...] Meanwhile, infighting is worsening between elected village leaders and those activists left on the outside. According to Yang Semao, deputy director of the governing village committee, “The village committee only has seven people…, [but] there are dozens of influential activists and it’s impossible for everyone to join the committee. Now they’re going all out to attack, defame, and stymie us.”

Some observers on weibo have blamed China’s political system for the failures of democracy in Wukan to thrive. From Tea Leaf Nation:

User @玻璃罐子里的苍蝇 echoed this view, writing, “What Wukan villagers really want is money. Using democracy to solve the Wukan problem sounds great, but actually it is not the right prescription … Wukan’s follow-ups are reflections of the embarrassing situation of democracy in China. Democracy is still a luxury for us, just someone’s talking point. ”