China’s leaders claim their country is simply too big, too unique, and far too prone to chaos for them to allow democracy. Yet on Wednesday, a surprisingly free election takes place in Wukan, a coastal village of 15,000. It has caught the eye of many freedom-hungry Chinese.
The village election in Guangdong Province gives some hope that the world’s most populous nation might yet defy the Communist Party’s stereotype of the Chinese as unprepared to self-govern. This could be a Tunisian moment for the Middle Kingdom.
Wukan is just one of thousands of places in China where residents have recently rebelled against local injustices – the corruption, violence, and land grabs of party officials and their business cronies. Most revolts are either suppressed or quietly resolved. Few of them end up making a link between China’s rising injustices and its lack of democracy and independent judiciary.
But not in Wukan. Residents there took over the village for 10 days late last year because of official graft and the killing of a local man by police. They expelled party leaders and security forces from the village.
Instead of suppressing the protest, however, the province’s reform-minded party leader, Wang Yang, made a surprising concession. He allowed the chief rebel, Lin Zuluan, to assume power and arrange a popular vote. Wednesday’s election sets up a committee to supervise an election of village representatives. Volunteers have been going door-to-door to solicit votes.
“The public’s awareness of democracy, equality, and rights is constantly strengthening, and their corresponding demands are growing,” said deputy provincial party secretary Zhu Mingguo. He and his boss say they expect Wukan to be a template for elections throughout the province.
Elections are a device to hold rulers accountable, an idea now common throughout the world. And yet still feared by a Communist Party in Beijing that assumes its legitimacy derives simply from its support of rapid economic growth.
Wukan’s moment of freedom may end up being suppressed or co-opted. One election does not make an Arab Spring. But without democracy, injustices in China can only grow as people find little to check official abuse. It’s worth recalling that more than half the American Declaration of Independence was simply a list of grievances against the crown.
Many Chinese watched last month’s elections in Taiwan with eager fascination. Some top Chinese businessmen visited the island to witness democracy in action. A party newspaper, Global Times, admitted that many mainland Chinese asked: “Why can’t the same style of elections be held here?”
Wukan’s newfound freedom has inspired other villages to wonder if they can be next. With the help of the Internet, a rice-roots movement could easily spread as more Chinese throw off the self-limiting notion that they are not ready for the rough-and-tumble of open politics, as in Taiwan. That island nation has disproved the theory that a hierarchy-minded Confucian society can’t be democratic.
China’s next party leader, Xi Jinping, visits the White House on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. Will he have the heart to acknowledge that Wukan represents a victory for China? And if not, will Mr. Xi be the last unelected leader of China?