Zakaria: Democracy in China?

March 12, 2012

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

You rarely hear the words "China" and "election" in the same breath. Unlike the U.S., France, or Egypt - all of which do have elections coming up - China has a "leadership transition" this year. This is a planned event where handpicked individuals are promoted up.

But there were real elections in China last week - of the people and by the people. There was a democratic vote with real ballots, real candidates, and real, clean results.

Welcome to Wukan. It's a small fishing village in South-East China, just a few hundred miles from Hong Kong. The story began a few months ago, when the villagers of Wukan protested against a "land grab".

Those are not so uncommon in China - corrupt officials often snatch privately held agricultural plots and sell them to developers for high prices. Protests are not uncommon, either. It is said that tens of thousands of demonstrations - just like this one in Wukan - have taken place in China every year. Two-thirds of those are because of land disputes.

So what made Wukan different?

For one, the people didn't give up. They were remarkably organized in holding noisy mass rallies and they drove out the local leaders who were complicit in the "land grabs".

But what is unusual here is the response. The provincial government, led by Party Secretary Wang Yang, conceded to the villagers' demands. On his call, the province returned some of the disputed farmland, released detained activists and allowed the villagers to hold their own elections.

All that led to scenes last week of 6,000 villagers voting in an organized fashion. The media, both local and Western, were allowed full access. And the main winners were the same protestors who led the rebellion.

So democracy is possible in China.

Wukan is now being talked of as a model for other Chinese villages. The theory goes that a "Wukan Effect" will sweep the country and create more uprisings, making it harder for the government to crack down. That, in turn, will lead to a larger democratic movement at the highest levels of government.

I 'm not sure that's going to happen anytime soon in China. For every Wukan, there is a Tibet. China's leaders know how to brandish an iron fist just as they know how to use a velvet glove.

The key here is to understand the way China functions. Villages (where rebellions are most likely) fall under the rule of provincial leaders. These leaders are immensely powerful, and with great levels of autonomy. So they make their own independent decisions on a case-by-case basis. But the idea that central command in Beijing would allow broader national moves towards democracy is probably a fallacy. Try protesting at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing and you'll see for yourself.

There is one larger potential trend here. Watch China's leadership transition later this year very closely. The top posts seem to be decided. But if reform-minded provincial leaders - like Wang Yang - make the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (the group that actually runs China), then perhaps there may be a shift towards some looser controls.

Wukan is a heartening story. But remember one thing: Change in today's China is rarely bottom-up and sweeping in nature. If there's going to be change, for now it's going be incremental and it will come from the top down.

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