Can Wukan Maintain Relevance?

The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon checks in from Wukan, where the small village has struggled to deliver results from its democratic experiment:

What we found was a hardscrabble village – Wukan is home to rice farmers and fishermen – whose leaders are struggling to deliver on the promises they made to their electorate. The electorate, meanwhile, is beginning to wonder if choosing their own leaders has made things any better.

The Wukan uprising has been declared (by the academic who advised China’s new leader Xi Jinping on his doctoral thesis) to have “historic significance” because it showed democracy and social stability could coexist in China. But the new village council remains just a tiny brick at the bottom of a vast, corrupt and authoritarian power structure. And that power structure is obsessively monitoring the democrats of Wukan.

Shortly after we met Mr. Zhang for tea to discuss the events of the last year, a thin man in dark jacket walked in through the teahouse’s open door. “Who are you? Give me your business card,” he shouted, grabbing my shoulder. When I asked him to give me his own card first, he released his grip on me, handed Mr. Zhang a handwritten note and walked out without getting my name. “He’s a police informant,” Mr. Zhang said with the shrug of someone who sees such people every day.

The system is pushing back against Wukan’s uprising in subtler ways, too. Members of the seven-person village committee (only the village chief, Lin Zuluan, is a Communist Party member) say they’ve hit a wall in their efforts to reclaim villagers’ land that was illegally sold to real estate developers by the previous committee.

The shine has reportedly worn off for the members of Wukan’s village committee, who were elected after villagers engaged in a standoff with police and provincial officials over illegal land grabs in late 2011. Villagers held a small demonstration in September, and one village official resigned in October 2012 over the lack of progress in resolving the grievances which had sparked the protests.

MacKinnon and photographer John Lehmann have chosen Wukan as the start of The China Diaries, “a journey of discovery overland through China by the Globe and Mail,” where they will seek to roughly retrace Mao’s Long March by rail over the next few weeks.

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