Residents of a rebel village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong voted for a new election committee on Tuesday, amid fears that the political gains from their protests two years ago may already have been wiped out.
Voters converged on the Wukan Primary School to cast secret, one person, one vote ballots for a committee that will pave the way for elections to replace current village leaders voted in after violent protests over land sales grabbed world headlines in December 2011.
Around 78 percent of eligible voters in the 20,000-strong village turned out, according to incumbent village committee deputy chairman and former protest leader Yang Semao.
"We received a total of 5,157 ballot papers, 5001 of which were valid," Yang told RFA's Cantonese Service after the poll on Tuesday. "We are currently counting the votes."
Once elected, the new committee will set up and administer elections to the village committee, although the post of village party secretary is appointed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
However, the authorities in Lufeng city, which administers Wukan, have dragged their feet on setting a date for the elections proper, reports have said.
Yang said the turnout was slightly better than predicted, although some older party officials had made a comeback on the list of 43 candidates contesting 11 places on the committee.
"There are five [candidates] with this background," he said.
Hundreds of villagers defended their village against armed police in a standoff with security forces in December 2011, following weeks of peaceful protest at decades of unauthorized land selloffs by former party secretary Xue Chang, who has since been disciplined for corruption.
Six protest leaders were later elected to the village committee on March 3, 2012 after provincial leaders intervened on villagers' behalf, while Lin Zuluan was appointed party secretary by authorities in Donghai township, which administers Wukan.
Yang said he still planned to seek re-election, in spite of widespread frustration over stalled attempts by committee members to retrieve Wukan's land.
Hong Kong media reports have said Lin was widely criticized by Wukan residents and committee members for failing to call the full complement of four village assemblies during his tenure.
According to a recent report in the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper, Wukan’s old guard are slowly retaking control of the village government, sparking fears of a return to the old regime under Xue Chang.
Zhang appeared to confirm this report, saying that three of the candidates in Tuesday's election had had vested interests in previous land sales, and had been encouraged to stand by local party officials.
"The authorities have put up three corrupt officials who have served as branch party secretary in the past," he said.
"If the authorities bring back the corrupt officials, then all of our work fighting corruption over the past two years will have gone to waste, and this has made the villagers angry," Zhang added.
Zhang said Lin looked likely to retain his post as village party secretary, but that his deputy would be a former official named Xue Yubao, a key member of the committee during the tenure of Xue Chang.
He called on the government to support the villagers' anti-corruption efforts.
"We think the only way to achieve social harmony, and for the villagers to be happy, and the country prosperous, and for the fight against corruption to continue, is through democratic elections," Zhang said.
Lack of transparency
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said that the Wukan village committee, which has so far failed under Lin to secure the return of any of the village land, has been hampered by a total lack of transparency and by top-down authoritarian government immediately above them.
"In a system where there are no effective policies [to help them] and no rule of law, there is no way they could fulfil their promises [to local people]," Hu said.
"They had their democratic election and they got rid of all the corrupt village officials, but to this day they have had a hard time getting their land back," he said.
"It seems that the democratic hopes for the Wukan model have faded day by day, because they can't get around the absolute power of the Communist Party," Hu added.
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.