Friday, September 21, 2012
Protest marks souring of Chinese democracy experiment
By James Pomfret
WUKAN, China (Reuters) - One of China's most celebrated experiments in grass-roots democracy showed signs of faltering on Friday, as frustrations with elected officials in the southern fishing village of Wukan triggered a small and angry protest.
On the first anniversary of an uprising that gave birth to the experiment, about 100 villagers rallied outside Wukan's Communist Party offices to express anger at what they saw as slow progress by the village's democratically elected governing committee to resolve local land disputes.
"We still haven't got our land back," shouted Liu Hancai, a retired 62-year-old party member, one of many villagers fighting to win back land that was seized by Wukan's previous administration and illegally sold off for development.
The small crowd, many on motorbikes, was kept under tight surveillance by plain-clothed officials fearful of any broader unrest breaking out. Police cars were patrolling the streets.
"There would be more people here, but many people are afraid of trouble and won't come out," Liu told Reuters.
A year ago, Wukan became a beacon of rights activism after the land seizures sparked unrest and led to the sacking of local party officials. That in turn led to village-wide elections for a more representative committee to help resolve the bitter rows.
Friday's demonstration was far less heated than the protests that earned Wukan headlines around the world last September. But the small rally reveals how early optimism over the ground-breaking adoption of local-level democracy has soured for some.
"The hopes are too high," said Yang Semao, Wukan's deputy village chief who was elected in the village polls in March.
At the time, expectations were high in this village, built on a sheltered harbour fringed by mountains, that he and his fellow elected officials could swiftly recover farmland that had been seized by the previous local administration.
"We have already been trying our best," Yang said, explaining that complex land contracts and bureaucratic red-tape were hindering their recovery of the land.
Some local critics said the new village committee, which includes several young leaders of last year's protests, lacked administrative experience, failed to engage the public and allowed itself to be manipulated and out-manoeuvred by higher authorities within the party.
The committee stuck letters onto walls around Wukan this week, detailing its progress to date: the return of some 253 hectares of land and other "steady steps", including the resurfacing of roads and other social policy initiatives.
But by Friday, some letters had been torn down by villagers.
"They were people's heroes," said Chen Jinchao, a villager still trying to get back two thirds of a hectare of farmland.
"But now we see them differently. We don't have any new hope. What's the point of electing them if they can't solve the (land) problem."
A man on a motorcycle veered near Wukan's respected village chief, Lin Zuluan, on Thursday and warned him that something big might soon happen, said Zhang Jiancheng, one of the young activists elected onto the village committee.
"Of every 100 things, we may do 50 of them. But people only complain about the 50 things we don't do ... The village committee has been trying to get the land back piece by piece. It's been a very painful process but we must follow legal procedures."
Some say recent discord has been partly sown by allies of the former disgraced village leader, Xue Chang, while higher officials in the Shanwei county seat of government remain tangled in shady deals involving hundreds of hectares of Wukan land in a new economic development zone.
"If Shanwei's corrupt officials aren't cleaned out completely, it is very difficult for us to move forward," Zhang said.
With China on the cusp of a tumultuous leadership transition, any further unrest at Wukan could impact Guangdong province's high-flying leader, Wang Yang, who some hailed as a reformer for his defusing of the Wukan standoff by acceding to key village demands and averting a potentially bloody crackdown.
Some villagers have spoken of marching again and putting real pressure on county and provincial authorities.
"In the end if they really force us to the very limits, it will be like a volcano exploding, you can't control it," said a senior villager who asked not to be named.
(Editing by Mark Bendeich)