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Protesting Chinese Village Elects A New Path


This week, a small fishing village in China held an election. By normal standards it wasn't a very big deal. Residents in the village of Wukan were simply voting for members of a new election commission. But consider this: the election was organized because it was demanded by residents who took to the streets in a mass protest last year.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: To understand how significant this was, we turn to NPR's Louisa Lim who was one of a few journalists able to enter the village of Wukan for those original protests in December. And she joins us now from Beijing. Welcome, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, take us back for a moment, if you can, and remind us what sparked these protests in this fishing village, Wukan?

LIM: Well, the protests were part of a long-running dispute over land seizures and abuse of power. The villagers said that their former village chief who'd been in his position for 40 years had sold most of their land without consulting them or compensating them. And these protests really started last fall and in December police detained five villagers, one of whom died in custody. After that, there was fury in the village and they chased out government officials and security forces. And there was this extraordinary 10-day long standoff when the village was blockaded off by security forces.

And the government did not crack down. It actually sent in high-level negotiators and agreed to return some of that land, to cancel the elections and to hold new ones. So the elections we saw earlier this week were the first round of those.

GREENE: OK. So how did the elections turn out and what was the reaction among residents?

LIM: Well, there was a very high turnout for the elections. More than 80 percent of the villagers took part. And a lot of them said that they had never cast a ballot before in 40 years. They felt this was the first time that they'd ever had a free and fair vote. But also some trepidation 'cause still no one really knows how it's going to turn out. So it's still early days in this process yet.

GREENE: So as we say it's a small step, but help us put it in context. I mean, elections in China at the village level are nothing new. But here we have a response to a protest. We have, as I understand it, one of the people leading the protest who was welcomed into the government as the local Communist Party chief. I mean, how significant is this?

LIM: Yes. It's not common at all. I mean, you know, there have been village elections in China. They started in 1987. But often the process of elections is very tightly controlled. Often people who are not Communist Party members are not allowed to stand. Or, as was the case in Wukan in the past, the votes were kind of sewn up secretly before the actual election. So this case is very significant because it was held due to public pressure.

And I think it's also significant because it is being talked about. Online there's a lot of debate about democratic participation, about village elections and this kind of thing. And it's putting the state-run media into an interesting position where they really don't know quite how to handle it.

GREENE: Interesting. Well, you know, we hear so much about crackdowns in China. I mean, is this village where the government responded to a protest by setting up an election and responding to protestors' demands, could this be a model for how the government and the Communist Party will handle popular protests in the future?

LIM: Well, it could be. I mean, the People's Daily actually said that the resolution of this dispute could be a potential model for officials managing tensions. But at the same time there are concerns, especially among officials about the copycat effect.

You know, if other villages who have disputes see that Wukan got elections through protesting, then, you know, maybe they might do the same. So to a certain extent it is being touted as a model. But at the same time if every village held protests to demand for, you know, their disputes to be solved then clearly this would be destabilize the country. And, of course, the maintenance of stability in China is the overriding priority above all else.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Louisa Lim speaking to us from Beijing and telling us about a village in China that held a small election in response to demands during mass protests.

Louisa, thanks so much.

LIM: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.