Shine Has Worn Off Wukan’s Early Triumphs

While a disputed land sale has sparked protests and demands for democracy in the Guangdong village of Shangpu, Reuters reports that “spring is over” in the nearby village of Wukan, which made headlines last year for holding elections after ousting its own village leadership in late-2011 land grab protests:

Reuters visited Wukan six times over the last year-and-a-half, chronicling the early protests, the uprising, its eventual triumph and now its disillusionment.

The events in Wukan focused keen attention in Beijing over a problem the central government had long underplayed – rampant land seizures across China. The government is drafting revised land management legislation for the annual parliament session in March that would require farmers – an estimated 650 million of them in China – to be adequately compensated and relocated before officials can expropriate any land.

But Wukan’s failure to overcome entrenched corruption shows how difficult it is for grassroots protest to spur lasting change in China. Towering above Wukan is a vast local, regional and national edifice of Party control and vested interests. Indeed, even the Xi administration’s push to overhaul the land seizure law faces opposition from developers, businesses and local governments that depend on property sales.

“For Wukan, amongst all the villages in China, to be able to rise up and protect their interests, then to conduct a democratic election and to become a kind of experimental ground, is significant,” said Peng Peng, a senior researcher with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences. But the inexperience of the new leaders and their halting progress over the land issues has exposed the teething problems of nurturing village democracy in China, he added. “There can’t just be democracy, there needs to be solid administration, too.”

Resentment has simmered among Wukan villagers at their leaders’ inability to secure the return of their land, but the Financial Times reports that deputy village chief Yang Semao believes critical villagers “are not reasonable:”

In its year in office, the committee has succeeded in returning 200 hectares of land sold off by the previous village chief, Mr Yang says. But many villagers are still determined to seize property for which the deeds were transferred to factory owners and businessmen several years ago.

Confronted with persistent criticism – in painful contrast to the adulation they once enjoyed of a once remarkably united village – Mr Lin and many committee members have contemplated resigning.

“I am afraid of seeing people, afraid of hearing my doorbell ring,” Mr Lin told a Shanghai television station last month. “Why? Because whatever I do or say now, people are able to find a way to blame me.”

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