Thousands of residents of a restive village in southern China cast their ballots on Wednesday, marking the start of a gradual restoration of grassroots rights following violent confrontations with authorities over land grabs.
The rebellion last year against abuse of power and the illegal sale of hundreds of hectares of farmland in coastal Wukan has become a benchmark of rural defiance against land grabs and corruption that blight villages nationwide.
Villagers gathered in the morning sunshine outside a school where the election is being held. Seven steel ballot boxes were laid out in the concrete school courtyard before a red election banner, as patriotic songs poured from speakers.
Xue Jianwan, daughter of village protest organiser Xue Jinbo, who died in police custody last year sparking further protests, visited her father's memorial in the village square before coming to vote.
"This is something my father would have hoped for," she said, bursting into tears after casting her ballot. "We just want to do our best to fulfil his final wishes."
The poll will select an independent election committee to oversee upcoming ballots, including one for the village committee on March 1.
With China's top leadership jockeying for power ahead of a succession in the autumn that will usher in a new generation of leaders, the smooth handling of the Wukan unrest has been paramount for Guangdong's Communist Party boss Wang Yang, one of the country's most prominent officials.
Several dozen police in green uniforms and caps guarded the entrance of the school, with several police vans nearby.
Flanked by sea and mountains in a remote pocket of China's economic powerhouse of Guangdong province, villagers had looked forward to Wednesday's ballot after suffering years under the previous Communist party village secretary, who was toppled in last year's turmoil after decades in the post.
"For 40 years we've never had a proper election," said a bouffant-haired villager named Chen Junchao ahead of the election of the 11 election committee members by around 4,000 eligible voters in the village.
"I've never seen these papers before," said an emotional Chen, clutching a white ballot registration slip stamped with an official red ink government seal. "I was crying when I saw this."
Not all are optimistic. One young woman with a baby swaddled against her said she was concerned a power struggle was under way for the March 1 village committee seats that could see some of the old corrupt guard regain influence.
"I'm a little worried for the future," she said, declining to give her name.
A few villagers scuffled angrily with election officials, claiming they weren't issued voter registration slips and were not allowed to vote. Otherwise, polling appeared smooth, though underlying bitterness and suspicion remained.
Village-level elections are common, if still stage-managed by the Communist Party. However, the situation in Wukan is unique in that its fledgling electoral steps were wrought from the jaws of unrest.
After rioting in September, villagers of Wukan expelled the old village guard and barricaded themselves in for a dramatic 10-day stand-off in December.
The move forced concessions from Wang's provincial government, which acknowledged there had been mistakes at the local level and granted the village a chance to wipe the slate clean and elect true people's representatives.
The Communist Party, which maintains single-party authority across the government, from the national capital Beijing to the province, city, county and township, maintains absolute control, but began experimenting with grassroots democracy in the 1980s under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
The approach to Wukan contrasts sharply with the response to recent unrest among ethnic Tibetans, who have been met with truncheons and bullets that killed several protesters in Sichuan province. The success of his approach could be pivotal for Wang's prospects to advance to the top echelons of power at the Communist Party's 18th Congress later this year.
While grassroots level elections are common, so are efforts to influence the outcomes from above.
"Before, if some one wanted to get elected, they'd spend 30,000 yuan. Today, they spend 10 times that. This is really indicating the competitiveness going on," said Baogang He, professor and chair of international studies at Deakin University in Australia and author of "The Democratization of China".
With Wukan, he added: "Everyone is watching, so this time it's probably unlikely. But naturally it happens. Maybe they will hold dinners, then hand out cigarette packs."
Few expect the ripples of Wukan's experiment with more democracy to spread far.
"I think if higher ups don't intervene and they reach a truly fair election, then we are hopeful about the situation in Wukan," said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute in Beijing.
"But overall, we are not optimistic because top-down intervention is common."
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