Wukan reforms fizzle?

Remember Wukan? At the end of last year this Chinese village was catapulted into the global limelight when villagers arose in protest against local leaders taking their land and selling it to developers for obscene profits. Many of the villagers received nothing, some were paid a mere pittance. The riots that followed were sparked by the death of one of the protest leaders, who many rioters believed was murdered by corrupt officials. The story was covered brilliantly by UK Telegraph reporter Malcolm Moore and chronicled in pictures, videos and translations over at China Geeks.

Wukan stood out as much for the spectacular images of an enraged public as it did for what to many looked like a happy ending, with higher authorities stepping in and implementing one-man-one-vote elections that ousted the corrupt local leaders. Custer at China Geeks was, at the time, very cautiously optimistic, as I was, too:

Most people seem to be happy for and/or jealous of Wukan, and many also see it as a sign of impending reforms or, for some, more sweeping changes:

Wukan is the beginning of Chinese democracy, a single spark can ignite a prairie fire.

We’ll see. As of now, I don’t believe they’re even finished counting the votes. But how things will look in a year is even less clear. Still, it’s hard not to feel good about what’s happening there right now, for me personally and, it appears, for an awful lot of Sina Weibo users, too.

Well now, nearly a year after the demonstrations began, things look far less promising. As noted in the Wall Street Journal’s China blog:

Immediately after riots broke out in Wukan, Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang interceded, which led to free elections that resulted in the village leaders being displaced by protest leaders, who then undertook to undo illegal land sales. This supposed success, fueled by Wang Yang’s involvement and attention from both traditional and social media, inspired a small number of reported village protests elsewhere in the country.

Today, those same Wukan villagers are frustrated because their original grievances have yet to be resolved. Disappointment has also reached other villages that had been encouraged by Wukan as an example of change arising from Chinese society. For example, an activist in a Zhejiang village, who had led protests against corrupt local leaders, was elected as village leader, but she found she could not work with the new party head. She then went to Wukan “on a whim,” only to be disappointed at finding reform had faltered there….

First, undoing the land sales has been complicated. It is unclear how much land can be reclaimed. Nearly 60 percent of the village’s 11 square miles was reportedly sold beginning in 1993. Some land has since been resold, in some cases more than once. Another complicating factor is the involvement not only of Wukan village officials, but higher-level officials at both township and country levels.

Wukan was looked at as a model of how the Party implemented reforms that led to fairness and social stability. It still is by many Chinese. But that’s simplistic. As the article notes, “The current system does not afford legal means of undoing corrupt land takings.” So dissatisfaction remains high in Wukan and justice has clearly not been served. While it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it was ultimately a very mixed “success” and not nearly the happy ending so many were hoping for. Instead of highlighting the government’s efforts at reform it underscores just how difficult it is to make real changes and achieve justice for the little guy. Elections are great, but they are not a panacea, especially in villages where rule of law is all but unknown.