Photographer: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Why China's Experiment in Direct Democracy Is Flawed

  • Wukan erupts in new protests five years after historic vote
  • ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’

Five years ago Wednesday, the tiny fishing enclave of Wukan drew international attention after villagers rose up in a land dispute, eventually securing a landmark local election in China. It has since become a cautionary tale for the nation’s democratic reformers.

The village about 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast Hong Kong erupted anew this month, as protesters returned to the streets to challenge the graft conviction of one of the last remaining leaders elected after the 2011 uprising. Videos circulated on social media showed riot police clashing with brick-throwing demonstrators and raiding the homes of alleged organizers. Authorities said Sept. 13 that they had detained at least 13 villagers over their suspected role in the protests.

Residents attend a rally in Wukan in the southern province of Guangdong, China, on Dec. 17, 2011.

Source: AFP via Getty Images

The detentions underscore the collapse of what rights advocates once saw as a “Wukan model” for encouraging direct elections at the village level in China’s one-party political system. Once voted into power, the inexperienced village leaders struggled to convince more senior Communist party officials to return land sold by the previous committee. Bickering, protests and corruption allegations further undermined their effectiveness -- and minimize the risk that demonstrations will spread to other localities.

“Eventually, the development of grassroots democracy is restricted by a country’s political ecosystem,” said Zhu Lijia, a public affairs professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, a research institute under the State Council. “Electoral democracy at the grassroots has almost no chance of success if the overall political environment is unfavorable.”

While the Communist Party rejects “Western-style” multi-party democracy and keeps a tight grip through local party committees, it instituted village elections as part of reforms in the 1980s. Former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao advocated limited democracy within the bounds of one-party rule, including more openness and competition among its roughly 90 million members.

President Xi Jinping has placed greater emphasis on party discipline and started a broad crackdown on dissent since taking power in late 2012, raising more obstacles to communities seeking to follow Wukan’s lead. His government has imprisoned scores of rights advocates, clamped down on public discussion of “Western constitutional democracy” and made organizing opposition harder by tightening internet controls.

Land Dispute

The villagers in Wukan have sought change within China’s one-party system, rather than advocating for revolution. They attracted particular attention because the main dispute -- the local government’s sale of collectively owned land -- had become a source of wider unrest during China’s development boom. After years of petitioning for the land’s return, crowds besieged government buildings on Sept. 21, 2011, prompting a months-long stand-off. Eventually, the Guangdong provincial government stepped in to broker a peace. 

They installed protest leader Lin Zuluan as village party chief, and subsequently allowed him and his fellow demonstrators to run for -- and win -- seats on the village committee in February 2012 elections. Wukan’s previous party chief had held the post for 41 years.

Lin Zuluan speaks after being elected as village chief in Wukan on March 3, 2012.

Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

An editorial published before the election in the party’s People’s Daily newspaper said Wukan had “confirmed that democracy and supervision are effective weapons in controlling corruption.” The party acknowledged the uniqueness of Wukan’s election, with a senior Guangdong leader in 2012 calling it “special" because laws and rules “were fully observed and implemented in detail this time."

Corruption Allegations

The protesters-turned-politicians quickly encountered difficulties in negotiations to recover Wukan’s lost land from Lufeng county and Donghai township, which oversee the village. Lin acknowledged in a September 2012 interview with Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper that he had been too naïve, since some properties had been sold for revenues in deals supported by county and town officials. 

The Lufeng county government has returned about 570 hectares (1,400 acres) of the 1,300 hectares sought by Wukan leadership, the official Nanfang Daily newspaper said Sept 11.

Meanwhile, the village leaders’ own finances came under official scrutiny. Two of his former deputies were sentenced to prison in 2014 for bribery claims connected to public projects. Then, in June, Lin was accused of corruption -- claims his wife dismissed as a set up. Protesters went back into the streets in his defense.

‘Often Flawed’

“The implementation of grassroots democracy is often flawed and faces multiple problems, for example a fragile social foundation and weak sense of the rule of law among both the local government and the people,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology who studies rural China.

Residents fill in ballots during the Wukan elections on March 3, 2012.

Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Even before the corruption allegations in Wukan, which has about 13,000 people, the village’s old guard was making a comeback. In 2014, three members of the ousted village leadership were appointed to the party committee. As tensions mounted, another former protest leader quit government and left for the U.S. amid fear of retaliation.

On Sept. 8, a court in Guangdong’s Foshan city convicted Lin of taking 593,000 yuan ($89,000) in bribes and sentenced him to three years in prison. Authorities sent in riot police to mop up the protests, firing rubber bullets and tear gas and searching door to door for alleged organizers.

‘Deep Contradictions’

Five Hong Kong reporters said they were beaten while covering the demonstrations and detained for six hours, prompting a protest from the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. About 100 people in Hong Kong held a vigil outside of the mainland’s Liaison Office on Saturday night in support of the Wukan villagers, the South China Morning Post reported.

“There remain deep contractions between local governance and hierarchical control, as well as contradictions between the economic interests of villagers and the economic and state interests of systems within which village communities exist,” said Andrew Wedeman, director of China Studies at Georgia State University. “I thus do not necessarily see Wukan as a harbinger of things to come so much as evidence that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

— With assistance by Ting Shi

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