February 12, 2012 4:01 pm

Wukan’s young activists embrace new role

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Just after 11pm on Friday, two Wukan activists made a quick spot check at the school playground where the voting booths for the village’s elections had been set up. Zhang Jiancheng and Zhuang Liehong were discussing whether the booths were adequately spaced to allow for a secret ballot – a first for a village election in China.

Both were detained by police in December for leading protests against the local government. Since then, however, they have turned to helping organise the polls, agreed to by the provincial government of Guangdong after a tense eleven-day standoff.

“As the first example in the country of this kind, this election may help promote a fairer society,” Mr Zhang declared.

For all the international interest that events in Wukan have attracted as a potential green shoot of democracy in among the remarkable elements is how young villagers are transforming themselves from activists into guardians of protocol.

Wukan’s village elders remain important. On Saturday morning, Mr Zhang, 26, and Mr Zhuang, 28, were at the back of a playground while up on the podium Lin Zuluan, 67, one of the leaders of the protests who was appointed party secretary in January, presided over events.

“The older generation is more stable when handling problems,” Mr Zhang conceded. “They know many more of the families in the village.”

The young leaders, however, are establishing their own role and are determined to make the election and the resulting administration a success. Several were elected on Saturday – it was the second election in a series of three – to be part of an ombudsman’s authority of more than 100 villagers that will oversee the working of the village governing committee, which is to be chosen next month. Mr Zhang and Mr Zhuang were among them.

More than 6,500 villagers voted on Saturday, a turnout of almost 85 per cent.

The role of Wukan’s young activists has been important from the start. Mr Zhang’s younger brother, Zhang Jianxing, 21, who was also elected a representative on Saturday, produced a documentary in September on the loss of land and livelihoods in Wukan as a result of deals by officials to sell what villagers allege was hundreds of hectares of communal land. Using Google Maps, he and others identified and highlighted land they allege was sold without the village’s knowledge.

As the multiphase election unfolds, one can see these young activists taking on new roles.

Zhang Jiancheng said he saw the large group of new representatives and their power to overrule decisions by the village committee as an effort to increase the transparency of Wukan’s finances and “the power of supervision”.

“Democracy is better designed from the bottom up,” he said.

While leaders such as Mr Zhang concede the older generation is better at handling the government, they are not always able to contain their frustration with local party officials and their arbitrary diktats.

Minutes after Mr Lin bounded up the stairs to the rooftop of a house adjacent to the school to decline, with utmost courtesy, an interview for an FT video, Mr Zhuang and Hong Ruichao, who were both imprisoned in December, were shouting at plain-clothed policemen and government officials.

The young leaders were enraged that journalists were being prevented from filming from the school’s balconies. In retaliation, Mr Zhuang ran up the stairs to the first floor to harangue a state-media cameraman till he was forced to come down.

It seemed like an omen. In the months to come, Mr Lin will need all his diplomatic skills to keep peace in Wukan between the feisty younger generation and the local Communist Party.

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