Wukan Elections

I can imagine on the election day that, hundreds of people, villagers or foreign journalists, used their camera with an excitement they have never experienced before. The wooden three-sided object is nothing but a crude handicraft. But on that day, in Wukan Primary School’s playground, these wooden voting booths became symbols of democracy for China. After so many years, democracy is still a stranger to the land of China but the dream came true in Wukan that day.


In the 1980s, villagers’ rights to directly elect the Village Committee (VC) were written in the Chinese constitution. However, the “local level (jiceng)” democracy has not led to further democratization. The reasons are multifold. Manipulation and corruption account for a large part. The ambiguous power structure at the rural level is also a problem. For example, in Wukan, elections have been held every three years but they were all manipulated by the party official Xue and his subordinates. Flawed elections do not have the effect of supervision and holding the leaders responsible for the people they govern. This explains why Wukan villagers would ask for a “real” election.


In the negotiations with the government, Wukan’s only representative, Lin Zuluan, had the government agree on an immediate and fair re-election of the VC. The election thus became the first task for the new Wukan. Villagers were nervous not only because the majority of them had no experience of voting but also because they knew people in China even in the world were watching them. If they failed for any reasons, such as chaos during the elections or any form of electoral fraud, those who claim that Chinese society is not suitable for democracy would use Wukan as evidence to support their theory. Therefore, the less educated villagers worked under unequal pressure.


In compliance with the Organic Law, a complete election (re-election, technically speaking) includes three sub-elections. They are (in chronological order): the election of the Election Committee, whose duties are to operate future elections, mobilize villagers to vote and ensure the fairness of the elections; election of the Village Representatives, an ombudsman’s body made of over 100 villagers who will monitor the village finances and the work of the village committee; election of the Village Committee, who are in charge of most of village affairs and village welfares. According to some media, who were in Wukan at that time and reported on the elections, the government of all levels together drafted a Wukan Village Committee Re-election Advising Proposal, which includes many “suggestions” about how to operate the following elections. Villagers were alert to such official document because local government has tried to seduce illiterate villagers to sign some illegal agreements that would harm their rights. Even though the proposal is helpful in general, a small number of “elites” from Wukan (most of them were protest leaders), with the help of a few non-governmental intellectuals, studied the document and found many places problematic. For example, the proposal states that the party primary organization would give villagers a list of candidates to vote for. This is immediately rejected by the Wukan side because the law states that villagers who have the right to elect shall nominate candidates directly (Article XIV). Suggestion from Wukan is that elections this time should use a combination of self-nomination and nomination-by-others. Self-nomination is designed to protect each villager’s right to elect; nomination-by-others is to prevent votes from scattering because the law states that a candidate shall be elected only if he/she wins more than half of the votes casted by the villagers (Article XIV). Not only did the villagers detect problems that will harm the fairness of these elections, but they also discover some technical problems that the “experts” from the government have neglected.


Outsiders may question: how do the villagers, with a middle school education on average, most of who have never been to an election before, understand the complicated mechanism of elections? A small number of villagers have paid attention to this problem. Villagers have chosen about fifteen literate villagers who understand electoral laws and they formed a “preparatory team” to explain rules to normal villagers and answer their questions before and during the elections. One member of the team told a journalist that it was in fact not difficult to teach average villagers those rules because most of the rules are easy to understand. One of the most difficult but critical things, she told the reporter, is telling villagers the differences of the three elections. For example, many villagers wanted to vote Lin Zuluan into the VC but they tried to do so in the first election, which is for the election committee, because the only thing in their mind is “I want to give my vote to Lin.” The preparatory team explained to countless ignorant villagers that “the first election is to elect people who will monitor the following elections” and “the law states that people won in the first election will not be allowed to participate in the VC election.” They tried to find the simplest language to make villagers understand. “Our job is nothing but to make complicated things simple,” one team member said. In this way, Wukan people cleared many difficulties that seemed insurmountable to some people. The success of the elections is enough to refute the theory that Chinese people are not suitable for democracy.


Election of the new VC started on March 3. Because only two candidates won more than half of the votes, an additional round was held the next day when the seven-person VC was finally elected. Sixty-eight years old Lin Zuluan won 91% of the votes and became the chairman of the VC. He is also the new party secretary of Wukan. Four out of the seven VC members are under thirty years old, including the only female candidate, Chen Suzhuan. Another female candidate Hong Ruiqin won more votes than Chen but because the law states that direct relatives cannot be elected at the same time and Hong’s younger brother was also elected, Hong decided to leave the opportunity to her brother. Another interesting thing is Chen did not win as many votes as others (while Hong did) but because the law states that at least one female has to be elected in the VC, Chen was elected as the runner-up in female candidates.


  1. How many of the the elected VC were members of the Communist Party? Is party membership important in local elections like this?

  2. Thanks for your questions and sorry for my late reply. To be honest, I did not ask the new VC members if they are communists. But the new chairman of VC Lin Zuluan, the most respected leader in the Wukan protest, is a party member and used to work for the CCP local branch in Wukan. Therefore, party membership is not an absolute burden for candidates.