HONG KONG, China — This week, Chinese netizens celebrated the news that 20 local party cadres in the tiny, restive hamlet of Wukan had been punished for embezzling public funds and brokering illegal land deals.
On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, users applauded the villagers, who drove out the officials in a wave of mass demonstrations. On Baidu, the country’s equivalent of Google, “Wukan” quickly became one of the top-10 searched terms.
“We need to take this [news] as an inspiration for action,” wrote one Weibo user based in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, where Wukan is located. “We need to continue making a disturbance — this way, we can help our country promote democracy and oppose corrupt activities.”
Unrest first erupted in Wukan one year ago. With the expulsion of corrupt local officials, the peaceful resolution of villagers’ complaints has spurred hope that it will serve as an example of democratic reform across China.
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Despite this optimism, experts are cautious about interpreting this resolution as a shift toward openness and transparency from the central government.
Vivian Zhan, professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, warns against concluding that this is a sign that Beijing intends to go on the attack against corruption.
“It has been an oft-used strategy for the Chinese government to selectively pursue certain cases and punish some officials [often low-level ones] in time of major protests so as to appease the protesters and prevent the escalation of conflict,” she writes.
In reality, while state-run media have stressed that the officials have been “punished,” the local chiefs seem to have gotten off with a slap on the wrist. Xue Chang, the former Communist boss of Wukan, was ordered to hand over $30,000 obtained through corrupt land dealings, while the former village-committee head had to turn in $14,000.
And even the steps toward democracy taken by holding an open election in March should be taken with a grain of salt.
Vivian Zhan, the academic, writes that the town’s election last month is merely “what it should have been in the past two decades or so according to Chinese law. … There may be more transparency in this election and openness to media reports, but the election doesn't change the fundamental constraint on true democracy at the village level,” she writes.
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Residents voted to select leaders for their village committee, but the committee remains subordinate to the local party branch.
At the very least, the peaceful resolution in Wukan has strengthened the hand of liberal-minded reformers in the Communist Party, serving as further proof of the benefits of the “Guangdong Model.”
An editorial in the latest issue of the party’s mouthpiece magazine in Guangdong boasted that Wukan should “serve as a lesson” for other local governments. Instead of cracking down, the editorial advised, officials should listen to concerns about social justice.
Sun Liping, professor of sociology at Tsinghua University, believes that the significance of Wukan has less to do with elections than with showing a way to achieve a peaceful result from the mass demonstrations that have increasingly gripped China.
“Given that Wukan was able to achieve all this, especially given the tense circumstances, offers proof that democratic means can be used to solve problems in China,” he writes. “It's also a sign that Chinese society has the potential to be both more democratic and also capable of long-term stability.”