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China’s ‘little democracy’ struggles to maintain relevance

Blogger Zhang Jianxingin used social media in 2011 to tell the world that Wukan’s 1,300 residents had taken over the village’s main square demanding to hold free elections.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

If you want to visit Wukan – the tiny village hailed as a Chinese experiment in democracy – it's best that you don't call ahead.

"If you call [to make appointments] you probably won't be able to see anybody," Zhang Jiangxing, a 21-year-old blogger, warned as our car approached his hometown on China's southeast coast. Just show up, he advised. So we did.

In late 2011, Mr. Zhang used his accounts on Twitter and Weibo, its Chinese equivalent, to tell the world that Wukan's 1,300 residents had taken over the village's main square, demanding the right to choose their own representatives. After a months-long standoff with police, the villagers were allowed to hold an election last Feb. 1 and vote for their own leaders.

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It's not that the leaders Wukan elected that day are inhospitable. Quite the opposite. But others higher up in the Chinese power structure seem unenthusiastic about outsiders coming to visit the little democracy inside the People's Republic. "Even as I speak to you, there is someone else listening," Mr. Zhang explains over his own mobile phone.

Wukan is the starting point of a journey of discovery overland through China by The Globe and Mail, one that will stretch over thousands of kilometres and several weeks. Nearly all of this cross-China trip over the next few weeks will be by rail.

But it starts here in Wukan, a three-hour drive south of Guangzhou railway, to see what Chinese democracy looks like one year after the mini-uprising that produced the country's most independent, and arguably most responsive, local government.

What we found was a hardscrabble village – Wukan is home to rice farmers and fishermen – whose leaders are struggling to deliver on the promises they made to their electorate. The electorate, meanwhile, is beginning to wonder if choosing their own leaders has made things any better.

The Wukan uprising has been declared (by the academic who advised China's new leader Xi Jinping on his doctoral thesis) to have "historic significance" because it showed democracy and social stability could coexist in China. But the new village council remains just a tiny brick at the bottom of a vast, corrupt and authoritarian power structure. And that power structure is obsessively monitoring the democrats of Wukan.

Shortly after we met Mr. Zhang for tea to discuss the events of the last year, a thin man in dark jacket walked in through the teahouse's open door. "Who are you? Give me your business card," he shouted, grabbing my shoulder. When I asked him to give me his own card first, he released his grip on me, handed Mr. Zhang a handwritten note and walked out without getting my name. "He's a police informant," Mr. Zhang said with the shrug of someone who sees such people every day.

The system is pushing back against Wukan's uprising in subtler ways, too. Members of the seven-person village committee (only the village chief, Lin Zuluan, is a Communist Party member) say they've hit a wall in their efforts to reclaim villagers' land that was illegally sold to real estate developers by the previous committee.

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That land grab sparked the initial protests in late 2011. A failure to recover most or all of the villagers' land will be viewed by many here as a failure of the new council, and perhaps even of the experiment with democracy.

"On one side, the villagers are pushing us to go faster [in recovering the land]. But the upper levels of government do not move very quickly. We are the meat pressed in the sandwich," said Hong Ruichao, a 28-year-old salesman elected to town council following the protests. "This past year has not been simple."

On Wukan's central square, where the protesters first gathered in 2011, some say that if the village council can't get the land back, the villagers will have to again resort to the only tactic that has thus far delivered results: protest.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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