It can happen here…

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China’s rebel village holds council polls

Unlike the many flare-ups over land grabs and corruption across China every year, Wukan residents have now moved beyond organised protest to organised politics in a bid to win back illegally sold farmland and safeguard future rights.

While village elections have been permitted for decades, Wukan has pushed the boundaries, led by a visionary rebel village leader turned party secretary and a vanguard of young activists able to unify the village against higher authorities.

“For the first time in decades, this is an opportunity for democracy. Both myself and the villagers like this,” said Lin Zuluan, Wukan’s respected 67-year-old party secretary, a candidate to lead the village committee.

Anger over land grabs has captured the attention of China’s leadership.

Wen Jiabao, the premier, recently promised to make village committee elections a channel for public opinion, acknowledging China has failed to give adequate protection against rural land seizures.

“The root of the problem is that the land is the property of the farmers, but this right has not been protected in the way it should be,” Wen said during a trip to Guangdong in February.

The Wukan experience has proved a beacon for civil rights activists, academics and journalists, who have flocked to the village to observe the polls.

Hua Youjuan, a village chief from Huangshan in eastern China, where villagers have also rallied against corruption, said: “Wukan is an example for us.

“What Wukan has achieved through its solidarity is something we can learn from.”

Xue Jianwan, the daughter of Xue Jinbo, a protest leader who was abducted and died in police detention in December, said senior local officials recently urged her to drop from running as a candidate for the village committee.

She said taking part in the election might mean she could no longer continue in her job as a teacher given electoral rules.

“The more they don’t want me to take part, the more I want to,” said Xue in an interview before election day.

Other young leaders, who played a key role in publicising corruption that saw hundreds of hectares of Wukan farmland sold off in illegal deals, have spoken of extensive surveillance, police pressure and fears of reprisals.

In February, Wukan elected an election committee to oversee Saturday’s proceedings. Now the stakes are higher.

The seven-member village committee, including a village chief and two deputies, will have power over local finances and the sale and apportioning of collectively owned village land.

Residents hope the frequent practice of higher officials controlling lucrative land deals will become a thing of the past.

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A 66 year-old American male living in Chiangrai, Thailand
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