A rare concession by Chinese authorities in local governance

By Yo Tong on December 25, 2011
A banner raised in the Siege of Wukan reads, "Wukan people are innocent. Central government, please help Wukan." The incident may have an interesting effect on China’s policy towards local governance in the future.

Chinese authorities have calmed protesters in Wukan, a fishing village of 13,000 in Guangdong Province, by offering rare concessions including the official recognition of the villagers' elected self-governing body, according to a Hong Kong media report.

After meeting with protesting villagers, the Southern Chinese authorities have given in to three key demands including the official recognition of the once-illegal Wukan Provisional Committee. According to the Hong Kong based Chinese-language newspaper, Mingpao, the Deputy Secretary of the Guangdong CPC Provincial Committee Zhu Mingguo recognized the legitimacy of Wukan’s committee and allowed the Council to maintain law and order in the village.

Zhu was reported as saying that the provisional committee will wield governmental power until the land confiscation dispute has been completely settled. Importantly, this implies that the committee is – albeit temporarily – the de-facto governing body of Wukan.

It is the first time an elected local governing body has received official recognition since the Chinese Communist Party took control of the Chinese mainland in 1949.

In 1998, the National People’s Congress of China adopted the Organic Law of Village Committees in order to ensure “self-government by the villagers in the countryside, who will administer their own affairs according to law, developing democracy at the grassroots level in the countryside“ (Art. 1).

Paradoxically, this law makes democratic concessions while underlining the role of the Chinese Communist Party as the “leading nucleus” (Art. 3) of all governmental activities.

The village committee elections have long been marred by vote buying, corruption and heavy-handed intervention by the Communist regime.

Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, pointed out that it would be significant if the representative council elected by villagers themselves could be recognized by authorities, writes the Global Times. “Grass-roots elections have been hit by corruption, but this time the council is purely chosen by the villagers," Wang said.

The Wukan uprising started in late September 2011, when hundreds of villagers participated in a sit-in protest demanding investigation on fraud in village council elections, as well as on profiteering of the village government in land deals since the Open Door Policy. The protest turned violent on the 21st and 22nd of the same month, as people attacked the village committee and destroyed an industrial park. Villagers accused local officials of selling farmland to a Hong Kong developer who made a hefty profit from the deal, without their consent.

The frustrated Wukan villagers established the Wukan Provisional Committee through elections, but it was banned by the local government of Lufeng on December 3. The situation deteriorated after Xue Jinbo, deputy chief of Wukan’s Council, died during police custody under suspicious circumstances on December 11. Villagers subsequently stormed the local police station, forcing police and Communist Party officials out of the village, which led to a blockade by the police.

This incident demonstrates south China’s villagers’ resentment towards corruption, state inefficiency and other injustices. It is also a clear indication of an increasing consciousness of people’s rights in China, and may become a contagious trend in the years to come.