One of China’s most celebrated experiments in grassroots democracy showed signs of faltering yesterday, as frustrations with elected officials in the southern fishing village of Wukan triggered a small and angry protest yesterday.
On the first anniversary of an uprising that gave birth to the experiment, about 100 villagers rallied outside Wukan’s Chinese 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 for development.
The crowd was under tight surveillance by plain-clothed officials.
“There would be more people here, but many people are afraid of trouble and won’t come out,” Liu told reporters.
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 solve the rows.
Yesterday’s demonstration was far less heated than the protests that earned Wukan headlines around the world last year in September. However, 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 (楊色茂), Wukan’s deputy village chief, who was elected in the village polls in March.
At the time, expectations were high that the committee would recover the farmland.
“We have already been trying our best,” Yang said, explaining that complex land contracts and red tape were hindering the recovery.
Some local critics said the new village committee, which includes several young leaders of last year’s protests, lacked administrative experience and allowed itself to be manipulated and out-maneuvered by higher authorities within the party.
The committee stuck letters onto walls around Wukan this week, detailing its progress to date: The return of about 253 hectares of land and other “steady steps,” including the resurfacing of roads and other social policy initiatives.
However, some letters had been torn down by villagers.
“They were people’s heroes,” said Chen Jinchao, a villager still trying to get back his 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 (林祖鑾), on Thursday and warned that something big might happen soon, said Zhang Jiancheng (張建城), one of the activists elected onto the village committee.
Some say recent discord has been partly sown by allies of the disgraced former village leader, Xue Chang (薛昌), while higher officials in the Shanwei County government remain tangled in shady deals involving hundreds of hectares of Wukan land.
“If Shanwei’s corrupt officials aren’t cleaned out completely, it is very difficult for us to move forward,” Zhang said.
“In the end if they really force us to the very limits, it will be like a volcano exploding, you can’t control it,” a senior villager said.