Drenched voters in the Chinese village of Wukan, which held landmark democratic elections after rebelling against Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, went back to the polls yesterday in a ballot clouded by signs authorities are reasserting their power.
Wukan, in Guangdong Province, grabbed headlines worldwide in 2011 when locals staged huge protests and drove out CCP officials they accused of illegal land grabs.
Protest leaders swept to power in landmark elections months later, and another poll was held yesterday in torrential rain to elect a new seven-member village committee. However, the conditions lowered turnout, as did a sense of disillusionment with the lack of progress in recovering land following the previous ballot.
The recent arrests of several former protest leaders and a heavy government presence at the polling station in a school, raised suspicions that the election is under pressure from higher-level authorities.
“After years, we still haven’t got our land back,” said one silver-haired man, who like several others declined to give his name.
“The CCP branch office is more powerful than the village committee,” he added. “If an official wants to arrest a farmer, they can.”
Many residents of Wukan, a village where locals said about 430 hectares of land had been illegally seized and sold, have become disappointed with the committee leaders elected in 2012, after they failed to regain much of the land.
The mood at the polling station was muted and somber.
“I feel the election isn’t as open as before,” a middle-aged man surnamed Zong (宗), who runs a meat and noodle restaurant, said after casting his ballot. “There were not even half as many government staff last time.
“They will not count the votes in public. The voting forms will be taken somewhere we can’t see them to fix the result,” he said.
Many declined to comment or give their names at all.
The 2012 elections in Wukan were seen as unprecedented in their openness, with candidates not vetted by the CCP, a group of ordinary villagers overseeing the process, and votes cast by secret ballot.
However, two of the village committee’s most senior members, former protest firebrands Yang Semao (楊色茂) and Hong Ruichao (洪銳潮), were detained on corruption charges last month by prosecutors in Lufeng.
Another committee member, Zhuang Liehong (莊烈宏), fled to the US to seek asylum earlier this year.
Reports late last month also said that a member of the CCP branch ousted by the protesters had been reappointed, adding to fears that local authorities are reasserting their power.
“It’s very clear that the authorities just want to control the situation in Wukan,” Zhuang told reporters in the US.
“The old protest leaders are likely to fail, because they are still in prison or under investigation,” said Xiong Wei (熊偉), a researcher who studied Wukan’s uprising.
“The local government has tried to discredit the first group of leaders,” he added. “There is not the same monitoring as before, so the villagers worry that the results can be faked.”