On Wednesday in the coastal Guangdong village of Wukan (乌坎), nearly 7,700 villagers voted in open elections to select an independent election committee that will oversee the election of new village leaders in March. Many villagers are voting for the first time in their lives.
The election lasted 9 hours with a two hour break in between, and took place at a local primary school in Wukan, with wooden boxes set up on top of school desks for villagers to write on their ballots, while large aluminum boxes collected votes. Teachers aided elderly voters who were illiterate, while a media counter for journalists was also set up.
The 11 members of the independent election committee were chosen from a group of 50 villagers, who were placed on the ballot after gathering 50 supporting signatures. And to lessen the possibility of a stolen election, a pre-election census of the village counted all residents living in Wukan, while unused ballots were burned after voting concluded.
Malcolm Moore of the Telegraph writes that villagers had created a festive atmosphere leading up to the election, with drums being beaten and firecrackers being set off (no doubt leftovers of the recent New Year’s celebrations), a far cry from the tension that took place in the aftermath of Xue Jinbo’s death:
Seven weeks ago, the scene was very different. Wukan was in open revolt, having chased out the local Communist party and repelled the water cannons and tear gas fired by a thousand armed police.
The small fishing village, close to Hong Kong, was under siege, its supplies of food choked off.
Shops shut their doors, while the town’s youth patrolled the village day and night watching for a government attack.
In the end it never came. As the world turned its attention to Wukan, the Communist party backed down, calling off the siege, releasing two prisoners, and promising to fairly address the village’s complaints.
And now the first reward of Wukan’s struggle, in the form of ostensibly free and unimpeded elections, has come to fruition.
Zhang Jiancheng, a member of the group of young villagers that first began submitting complaints concerning the misappropriation of Wukan’s land by officials, hopes that the situation in Wukan can serve as a model for other villages across the China:
“We have seen a flame of democracy here and we have seen other places follow suit, in a domino effect. Other villages are learning from us. So we have to make sure that all the elections are open and fair,” said Mr Zhang.
“There is still an arduous journey ahead of us,” said Mr Zhang. “We succeeded, where tens of thousands of other villages have failed, because we were so strongly united, and there was no division between us. We had a clear target. I hope, going forward, the villagers do not think too much about their small, private, interests, but keep thinking about our long term gain.”
Why did it happen in Guangdong?
With the benefit of hindsight, it makes sense that groundbreaking open elections in China happened in Guangdong province, given the relative liberalism of the province. Recent attention has been paid to the leadership style of the Guangdong governor Wang Yang (汪洋), who arguably practices the most visibly liberal politics in China at the moment.
It’s easy to view Guangdong as a province that serves as Beijing’s political laboratory. It was the fishing village of Shenzhen that was first demarcated as a Special Economic Zone, where differing tax schemes and market regulations were allowed in contrast to the rest of China during the 1980’s.
The move, of course, was a smashing success of historical proportions, with Special Economic Zones and Coastal Development Areas being created in other Chinese cities to follow Shenzhen’s lead. The city’s GDP reached 1 trillion RMB in 2011.
Meanwhile, there’s also the fact that the culture of Guangdong is infused with the philosophy of ‘1 country, 2 systems’ more than anywhere else in China, due to the province’s geographical proximity and socio-economic ties with the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao.
It’s easy to believe that elections, far from the northern political center of Beijing, would be more readily allowed in a province more familiar with the democratic freedoms of Hong Kong than the rest of China.
Taken together, perhaps the famous penchant Cantonese have for culinary experimentation might someday be overshadowed by their willingness to explore new political systems.
Hopefully, the words “Chinese Democracy” will then be reclaimed from the god-awful Guns N’ Roses incarnation of the early 2000’s.
Photos from Tencent News.