WUKAN, China–Voters in a Chinese village that overthrew its Communist Party bosses in landmark elections two years ago went to the polls again on Tuesday, but a key protest leader was absent from the ballot. Wukan, in south China’s Guangdong province, grabbed headlines worldwide in 2011 when locals staged huge protests and drove out Communist Party officials they accused of illegal land grabs and the death of a detained local villager.
The protest leaders were swept to office in free elections the following year. Yang Semao, a firebrand former protester, received thousands of votes in Monday’s poll for a new village committee, when another ex-demonstrator Lin Zuluan was re-elected as its chief. But Yang told AFP he pulled out of the run-off ballot for the remaining six slots on the committee because of irreconcilable differences with Lin. “He’s a quiet, compromising type of person, but I like to speak out,” Yang said. Yang described this week’s elections as “somewhat, but not totally democratic,” amid fears that higher authorities are reasserting their power.
“Involvement from the city government has been significant, that’s the main reason,” he added. Yang and another candidate were accused of corruption earlier this month by authorities in Lufeng, the city that administers the village. Despite the graft allegations, he is a popular figure seen as less closely connected to city officials than Lin. “I would vote for Yang Semao, but he’s dropped out, it’s a shame,” said a 24-year-old also surnamed Yang, as he scrutinized the list of candidates on Tuesday. “The village committee isn’t powerful — they never really achieved anything,” he added, expressing a common sentiment in the village. Many residents of Wukan, a fishing village where locals said around 430 hectares of land had been illegally seized and sold, have become disappointed with the committee leaders elected in 2012, after they failed to reverse many of the losses. State-backed land-grabs are a key driver of unrest in rural China, fueling the majority of the tens of thousands of protests taking place in the countryside each year, according to estimates. As on Monday, a heavy presence of workers sent by the government of Lufeng were standing close to voters on Tuesday at a polling station in a local school. Residents arrived in a steady stream but candidates did not make public speeches, in contrast to the carnival atmosphere of the village’s post-rebellion election.