Residents of the rebel village of Wukan in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong are gearing up for fresh elections next month, although a long stalemate over lost land threatens to undermine a democratic process that was once hailed as a ray of hope for the embattled rural community.
Wukan, which was allowed to choose its own ruling Chinese Communist Party committee following violent clashes in December 2011, must pick members of a new committee after two years of deadlock over the return of village farmlands sold off piecemeal over many years by former village party chief Xue Chang.
Yang Semao, deputy chairman of the village committee, said most of those elected to a two-year term in February 2012 had found the long-winded task of tracking down ownership and negotiating the return of Wukan's appropriated farmland to be a heavy burden.
And the glory days of the fishing village's first one person, one vote poll after four decades of domination by a single man's vested interests have long since faded.
"I am worried that this election won't attract enough voters, because the villagers have no goal to aim for," Yang said. "They really don't know which candidate to pick."
'No difference who's in charge'
The current village committee is entirely composed of former leaders of 2011's violent siege of Wukan, who were voted in by villagers in March 2012.
The village of about 20,000 people was in the international spotlight when hundreds of residents were locked in a stand-off with police in September 2011 in protest over the loss of their traditional farmland which had been sold off to developers by local officials. Three months later, provincial officials gave in to the protesters' key demand and promised to probe land grab claims.
But Yang said this week that the subsequent lack of success in retrieving Wukan's lost land meant that one candidate now looks much like another in the eyes of local residents.
"Either way, it's very hard to get the land back, so it makes no difference who's in charge," Yang said. "It's a very negative way of looking at it, but the villagers are very realistic."
"They want to see results, not a process. All they want is to get the land back, and see the elections as having nothing to do with them."
Yang said he was still unsure whether or not to stand again for the same post.
"It depends on whether my family supports me, and, in the wider world, whether local people would support me," he said.
A resident of Wukan who gave only his surname Zhang said he believed a democratically elected committee would force officials sent from higher levels of government to act more responsibly, however.
"The way I look at it, the local government really doesn't want to help us sort out the land issue," Zhang said. "They want to use the fact that the village committee is democratically elected to shove all the responsibility onto them."
"It seems as if they are being deliberately uncooperative."
According to Zhang, local officials from Lufeng city, which administers Wukan, are hoping to weaken the democratic process itself.
"[A low turnout] is exactly what they want to see," he said. "If a lot of people turn out at this next election, then Wukan's method of election will gain widespread recognition."
"The local government definitely doesn't want to see Wukan successfully get their land back, or a total victory for democratic elections," he added.
'Letting go of power'
Guangdong-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling, who has followed the fortunes of Wukan closely, said the elections of February 2012 were anything but a final victory in the standoff, which drew intense media attention after the death of one protester in police custody, and a bitter dispute over his remains.
"Right now in mainland China, the majority of places have land disputes, and more than half of them are the subject of rights campaigns," Tang said.
"For Wukan to get back its land would involve the local government letting go of some of its power."
The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments triggers thousands of "mass incidents" across China every year, but many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government's wishes.
In the case of Wukan, however, the standoff with armed police who encircled the village sparked rare concessions following an investigation by the provincial government of Guangdong, which concluded that most of the villagers' demands and complaints were justified.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.