The elections held in the Chinese village of Wukan were really the first of their kind since Deng Xiaoping "opened" up the country with major economic reforms in the 1980s. On March 3rd, approximately 6,000 villagers out of the 8,000 eligible voters gathered in public venues such as courtyards and elementary schools to cast their votes in secret ballot boxes. The extraordinary occasion was monitored by a group of trained local volunteers — even elementary children were mobilized to help count the ballots — to ensure that the process of direct democracy proceeded without government intervention.
The Wukan incident all started with the officials' sale of public village land to urban developers without the permission of the villagers or through forced evictions. This practice has been going on in many villages, but without much transparency. Some Wukan villagers did not even know that their land had been sold until developers started construction. After the death of village representative Xue Jinbo sparked a tense standoff between the villagers and the police, this election hinted at a sort of concession from the Communist Party in order to end corrupt local officials, but not a step towards democratic reform.
The Party has effectively distanced themselves from the corrupt local government by allowing this election to take place in hopes that the people will forget that the party has a hand in picking local officials and creating the conditions that breed corruption (such as abolishing the agricultural tax so the local government turned to land sales as the main source of revenue). However, the success of the villagers suggests that expressing discontent at corruption can serve as a legitimate catalyst for change. The people are sick of rampant corruption — which has led to horrifying consequences such as the high-speed rail accident that killed 40 and injured nearly 200 — and the central government is fully aware of this restlessness. Although major concessions will probably not be made any time soon, the Communist Party realizes that it needs to attempt to root out corruption before revolution breaks out, and if allowing a few villages to vote democratically eases tensions, then so be it.
A year of mass protests and democratic reform, 2011 saw the Arab Spring unfold amidst blood and suffering. Although it received less international coverage, China also saw protests in major cities and in autonomous regions such as Tibet. At least 20 self-immolations by Tibetans protesting the military crackdown from the Chinese government serves as a stark reminder that the iron fist still smothers the flames of freedom. 2012 looks to be another tumultuous year as the Wukan effect spreads to villages in regions such as Zhejiang and other places in the south. But unlike the glorified days of Maoist insurrection from the countryside, the outbreak of revolution will probably not occur in the villages where collective organization numbers in the tens of thousands, but in urban centers where millions of discontented blue-collar workers and educated professionals face a growing disparity in wealth and lack of opportunities for advancement. With the upcoming 18th National People’s Congress in China where there will most likely be a change in top party leadership, this issue will undoubtedly serve as a centerpiece for discussion among those governing the country.
Direct democratic elections in Wukan may not change the governing structure of China in the foreseeable future, but will serve as a symbol of hope to the Chinese community and remind them that momentous change at the grassroots level is possible and urgently necessary.
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