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Chinese villagers see hope in an imperfect voting system

People of the southern Chinese village of Wukan carried on with the vote for a village committee that some say is threatened by higher levels of government trying to wrestle back control.

PETAR KUJUNDZIC/REUTERS

Huddled under umbrellas amid a daylong deluge of rain, China's most famous voters came to mark ballots in hopes their flicker of democracy has not yet been doused.

It was not a tidy exercise in democracy. Droves of police, military and officials from higher levels of government provided a discomfiting presence. The number of ballots cast appeared to far outnumber those casting them, in part because overseers allowed people to vote on behalf of others, with no attempt at verification. No election campaign took place, with many too nervous to publicly lobby for support.

But the ballots marked in Wukan, a 13,000-person fishing village on China's southern coast, still constituted a small victory for those hoping a chance remains for some of the country's least powerful to hold sway over the running of their hometowns.

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In 2012, after defying police and the power of the Chinese state in a protracted standoff over land illegally sold to developers, Wukan booted out corrupt leadership and voted in a fresh slate of faces to a local village committee. That action made Wukan famous, as the face of a successful challenge to Communist Party authoritarianism and, some hoped, the pioneer for more such change.

In the two years since, however, the people they elected have not had an easy time. One defected to the United States. Two were arrested on suspicion of taking bribes. The village chief who was elected then has since been publicly accused of cozying up to the Communist Party.

The villagers of Wukan went to the polls again Monday. And unofficial results posted to Chinese social media Monday night showed the greatest numbers of votes cast went to the exact people who won election in 2012. It was a hopeful sign that outside interference had not completely succeeded in subverting the desire of local villagers to choose their own leaders.

Lin Zuluan, the man elected village chief two years ago, appeared set to reclaim that spot with 5,019 votes. Hong Ruichao, who is currently being detained after allegations of bribe-taking, received 2,041 votes. Yang Semao, who was also detained in recent weeks on corruption charges, took about 1,260 votes. Three others of the seven-member committee, each of them heavily involved in the protests that led to the 2012 election, received substantial numbers of votes.

The final results will be determined after a runoff vote Tuesday. But it's clear the previously elected officials have not completely fallen out of favour, despite their inability to get back all of the land locals said was robbed from them.

"I believe they are doing something good for the villagers," said Yang Yinqiao, who helped organize and run both elections. The move to detain candidates weeks before the vote, broadly seen as a gambit to undermine their standing in the election, appeared not to have completely succeeded, he said.

"Our villagers trust Mr. Hong. They don't trust the government," Mr. Yang said.

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He acknowledged, however, that some things seemed odd. In 2012, people could only vote on behalf of others if election workers could verify by phone that they were authorized to do so. This time, no such checks were made.

"I'm a little worried, because some ballots were allowed to be filled in by entrusted people. But there was no one supervising them," Mr. Yang said.

Others found it strange that officials reported turnout numbers on Monday higher than those two years ago, when excitement over the vote was far greater and the polling station was not inundated with rain.

"It feels very strange," said Hong Ruiqing, who is Mr. Hong's sister. "Personally, I feel there has been some trickery."

Lynn Lee, a filmmaker who has closely followed the first elected government, also expressed surprise.

"So many villagers we spoke to in the run-up to the election seemed really, really disillusioned with democracy and with the performance of the first democratically elected village committee," she said.

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It's possible that the re-election of Mr. Lin as village chief has been officially sanctioned. Some of his political rivals suspect he has fallen in with Communist Party officials. Fears also remain that Communist Party officials will merely take over the village committee, kicking out those who were elected and re-establishing the kind of control it had in the past. Adding to those fears is the fact that authorities recently installed a former village chief and four of his associates onto the nine-member party committee.

At the same time, official China has offered conflicting signals on Wukan and the experiment it embodies. The election Monday was closely covered by state media, with the Xinhua news service panning the village as "scandal-dogged." The 2012 election "did not put an end to the turbulence," the agency wrote, in a clear dig at elected leadership. Meanwhile, a former senior adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping told the South China Morning Post on Monday that Mr. Xi's "new philosophy of governance" includes "allowing democracy at the lower levels of government."

For the voters of Wukan, meanwhile, Monday's ballot offered faint praise for the value of elected office, said Xiong Wei, a legal scholar who helped the village conduct its first vote. It was better, he said, than the alternative.

"Some villagers said, 'Although what you have done is not satisfying, we have nobody else to choose.'"

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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