China's Wukan Experiment
The Communist Party allows greater democracy in a rebellious village.
Political reform has been a forbidden topic in China since 1989, and in the last decade Beijing has tightened controls over political speech or organizations that could threaten the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Which is why any hint that reform might be coming is worth noting. The election this week in the village of Wukan in Guangdong province is such a case, but while it merits praise and encouragement, it's too early to predict changes on a national scale.
Wukan was in the news last year after a long-simmering dispute between the villagers and local officials erupted in violence. For about a month, residents held riot police at bay until the provincial government sent in officials to negotiate a settlement. Corrupt officials who had expropriated villagers' land were removed, and concessions promised.
Typically in these cases, the authorities wait until media attention has died down and then punish the protest leaders. Instead in Wukan, the authorities seem to have honored their promises so far, and even rewarded Wukan's rebels with a chance to organize their own local government. One of the protest leaders, Lin Zuluan, has been appointed head of the local Party branch. On Wednesday, the village held a ballot to create an election committee that will supervise elections next month for village representatives and then for mayor. The Communist Party seemingly was not involved.
China has been holding elections for village leaders since 1987. But the election process is tightly controlled, the head of the village Communist Party branch retains real power, and budget decisions affecting villages are made at the county level. A few counties have tried to hold elections over the years, only to be punished by the central government.
Even more surprising in Wukan is the fact that the Chinese media are being allowed to cover it. This suggests that the experiment has national as well as provincial-level support.
In another sign that the political ground is shifting, the city of Chongqing is experimenting with relaxation of the hated household registration system, which means extending new rights to millions of workers who are moving from the countryside into the cities. Migrant workers could become a powerful interest group that clashes with the existing urban residents, unless a democratic mechanism is found to resolve the differences.
The Wukan elections may be a piece of political theater to reassure rural Chinese that the central authorities are taking an interest in their welfare. Faith in the Communist Party has been shaken in recent years as many Chinese realize that corruption is systemic and the result of national policies, rather than isolated local cases.
Even so, the Wukan experiment risks letting the genie out of the bottle, as other villages and towns in China's wealthiest province of Guangdong may demand the same privileges. Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms initially progressed by adopting the successful practices pioneered in forward-looking provinces, and political reform could follow the same path.
Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang is known to be one of the country's most progressive leaders, and he is competing for a place on the Politburo Standing Committee this fall. Watching his career path and the progress of elections in Wukan could indicate whether the Communist Party is finally ready to experiment with grass-roots political reform.