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'Opportunity for democracy': Rebel Chinese village votes

Peter Parks / AFP - Getty Images

Zhang Bincha, a 44-year old resident of Wukan, cheers after voting in village elections on Saturday. Residents of a small village in China went to the polls in a leadership election being hailed as a milestone for those demanding more say in the running of the one-party state.

WUKAN, China -- Residents of a southern Chinese fishing village gathered on Saturday to elect a new administrative authority that many hail as a model for greater grassroots democracy in China following an uncompromising standoff over land grabs and abuse of power.

Wukan, nestled on the Guangdong coast with a picturesque harbor flanked by hills, has emerged from nowhere as a symbol of rural activism and electoral reforms nationwide, embracing rare freedoms granted by provincial authorities in December to defuse a major flashpoint.

Anger at corrupt local officials turned to fury last September when villagers ransacked the Wukan government offices. Things boiled over again in December, when villagers drove out authorities and barricaded themselves in for 10 days before provincial officials stepped in to resolve the dispute, offering new elections.

Villagers defiant as government creates new narrative

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

Some of the 12,000 residents gathered outside a school on an overcast morning, eager to cast ballots for candidates vying for seats on a seven-person village committee. Many are backing former protest leaders, including those jailed in December.

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.

PhotoBlog: Chinese villagers defy government in standoff over land rights

"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. Premier Wen Jiabao recently vowed to make village committee elections an authentic channel for public opinion, acknowledging China has failed to give adequate protection against rural land seizures.

Rebellious Chinese village takes baby steps toward democracy

"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," said Wen 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.

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

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

Behind-the-scenes influence
In a sign of growing international interest, the U.S. government sent an observer to the poll. "We continue to monitor developments in Wukan closely," a U.S. diplomat who asked not to be identified said.

The polls follow a months-long struggle that saw villagers clash with riot police, ransack government offices, expel a corrupt old guard and form a self-administrative authority. It all came to a head in December, when villagers barricaded themselves in against riot police.

Peter Parks / AFP - Getty Images

Residents of Wukan fill in forms during voting in village elections on Saturday.

Guangdong provincial authorities, led by ambitious Communist Party leader Wang Yang, intervened, naming the rebel leader Lin as party secretary in a surprising concession.

Behind the scenes, authorities at the city and county level have been exerting a high degree of control. Some fear clans and allies of former village chief Xue Chang, whom many accuse of pocketing millions from selling off collective farmland, are vying to maintain influence.

Journalist beatings erase Wukan optimism

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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