China's Rebel Village Holds Council Polls
Residents of a southern Chinese fishing village have gathered to elect a new administrative authority that many hail as a model for greater democracy in China following an uncompromising confrontation over land grabs and abuse of power.
Saturday's vote for the committee governing Wukan went ahead with official approval after a long campaign by local people to end what they say was years of corrupt rule by Communist Party officials.
Wukan, located on the Guangdong coast, 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.
Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan reporting from Beijing, said this model of democracy "is not going to spread across China".
However, what is important is that "it is happening in this one village and it is starting a conversation in China, a place where people are electing their village leaders today", she said.
"And that is quite something in authoritarian China".
Anger at corrupt local officials turned to fury last September when villagers ransacked the Wukan government offices.
'Opportunity for democracy'
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.
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.
Some of the 12,000 residents gathered outside a school, 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.
"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."
In a sign of growing international interest, the US government sent an observer to the poll. "We continue to monitor
developments in Wukan closely," a US diplomat who asked not to be identified told the Reuters news agency.
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.
Guangdong provincial authorities, led by 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.
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.