Updated: Friday, 20 December 2013 16:14 | By Agence France-Presse

Democracy dream sours in China's Wukan two years on

After the Chinese village of Wukan rose up against its communist leaders, protest organiser Yang Semao was voted into office to reclaim the residents' stolen land -- only to find it frustratingly unachievable.

Democracy dream sours in China's Wukan two years on

Elected village official Yang Semao talks to AFP in the southern Chinese village of Wukan, Guangdong province, on December 12, 2013

Two years since the uprising in the little community on China's southern coast drew worldwide attention, leading to free elections and inspiring talk of a "Wukan model" for tackling government abuse, village democracy has proved powerless against the machine of the one-party state.

Hardly any land has been reclaimed and Yang -- once a local hero -- has lost track of how many times former supporters have complained about the village committee they chose.

One of its seven members has quit, more have tried, and Yang, one of its deputy chiefs, is not sure he will run in elections next year, or whether he would win.

"People come all the time to the village committee looking to make trouble," he said in his bare office.

"We've made some improvements, but this is ultimately not what they care about. Their ultimate goal is to get a lot of land back."

The community of 13,000 -- its main road lined with low-slung buildings and piles of brick, dirt and concrete -- ousted their longtime communist leadership in September 2011.

They rose up after discovering officials had quietly sold off vast swathes of land, which is collectively owned in China, suspecting them of pocketing the proceeds.

They mounted bigger protests over 10 days in December that year after a villager died in police custody, garnering global headlines, and only relented when free elections were promised by provincial authorities, led at the time by a politician with a reformist reputation, Wang Yang.

The settlement -- reached two years ago on Saturday -- looked like a breakthrough for citizen rights in a state that quashes unrest and where local officials commonly requisition land to sell to developers at huge profit.

But the elation fizzled as rebels-turned-officials discovered it was beyond their power to wrangle land back from unwilling city authorities, influential companies and a web of legally binding plot sales.

Analysts say the situation demonstrates the impotence of individuals outside the ruling communist machine.

Some villagers said they had lost hope in the committee or in popular movements -- though they were still glad to have had elections.

Next to the village committee premises -- a peach-coloured three-storey building topped by colourful flags -- a 45-year-old shopkeeper surnamed Liu said Wukan was better off with democracy despite the lack of progress.

"To know what it means to be united, to be the ones in charge... I'm over 40 years old and this is the first time I've seen it," he said, by his family's concrete shack where five people share one bed. 

"What's the use of finding new people? Let them work on it for a while," he said. "It's not that easy to get the land back."

Yang said the committee had halved its expenses and published them monthly -– rare openness in Chinese officialdom -- and a 22-year-old woman surnamed Huang said: "At the end of the day there have been some changes, like now things are more fair and transparent."

But Yang acknowledged that out of about 6,500 mu (430 hectares or 1,100 acres) of land being sought, they had retrieved only a little over 10 percent, while around a third was effectively gone forever.

"Although it's an objective fact that the circumstances were awful, we ourselves didn't try hard enough. It's like we've already given up," said Yang, 46.

The protest leader and elected village chief, Lin Zuluan, was not available to speak.

Even the total area in dispute remains unclear, with Hong Ruichao, the other deputy chief, saying city authorities would not clarify Wukan's borders, among other information.

But voters judged the committee simply by the amount of land returned, he explained. 

"They don't trust us because we haven't met their interests," he said. "I would be upset too."

A 30-year-old resident surnamed Qiu, who has demonstrated against both the old committee and the new, said he no longer believed in grass-roots protest.

"After these few years Wukan has nothing to show for itself, just some roads that have been repaired.

"I was so optimistic," he said. "Now I have no faith. All that effort and and it was no use."

Political scientist Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore described the stalemate as unsurprising, as even the best village leaders remained "powerless" against the ruling Communist Party.

"More and more people have come to realise that the problem is not merely that you elect a village committee. It's not that simple," he said. "It depends on if major reforms can be introduced into the party."

But such questions matter little to Wukan villagers who dismiss the elected committee for not fulfilling their core mission.

"They have not been effective, they seem more or less incompetent," said Zhang Jianxing, the brother of one member. 

"Since last year they have faced constant criticism and their supporters have basically dropped to none," he said. "I hope next year they'll be voted out of office."

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