As China gets ever more enthusiastic in its experiments with capitalism, can it ever embrace democracy? This ancient debate is lively once again, thanks to the historic "free" elections held this week in the rebellious little fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong province, where last year villagers rose in protest at infringement of land rights. The rest of China is fascinated by this small experiment in voting: a picture of a walled polling booth that actually allowed voters some privacy has gone viral.
But Financial Times columnist David Pilling warns that the Wukan experiment has little chance of being repeated nationally. This is, after all, a country where the wisdom of former leader Deng Xiaoping is still approvingly quoted: democracy and a legislature would be "too complicated" for China. The notion was mocked recently by Chinese journalist Chang Ping, who told the New York Review of Books that such an argument against democracy was “like saying you can’t practise swimming until you can swim, and you can’t swim because you can’t practise”.
In this instance, China's rulers have wisely "co-opted" the Wukan rebels, writes Pilling. They have even hinted that Wukan might be a model for better village governance:
With the Wukan cat out of the bag, authorities were almost obliged to pay its villagers at least lip- service. An essay in the state-owned People’s Daily said abuse of power over land acquisition was “damaging people’s rights”. Some grassroots cadres, it said, had “lost their sense of purpose”. Wen Jiabao, the premier whose progressive-sounding interjections rarely gel with actual policy, opined: “We can no longer sacrifice farmers’ land rights to lower the cost of industrialisation.”
But one should not exaggerate the effects that Wukan is likely to have nationally. Village leaders were savvy enough to frame their actions as a protest against local corruption, not against the system in Beijing. At national level, the party will choose the next generation of leaders without recourse to voting booths.