Residents of the rebel village of Wukan in southern China's Guangdong province voted for a new leadership amid a long-running and bitter land dispute on Monday, as the authorities held two popularly elected former protest leaders on alleged bribery charges.
More than 90 percent of more than 9,000 eligible voters braved heavy rain to cast their votes, according to official media reports, amid a heavy official presence at the polling station.
Incumbent village committee chairman Liu Zuluan emerged after initial counting as a clear winner in the race for committee chief, polling around 5,000 votes, with outspoken former protest leader Yang Semao, who ran for both chairman and deputy chairman seats, trailing at 2,500 votes.
"[Lin Zuluan got] more than 5,000 votes," a local resident surnamed Chen in charge of ballot counting told RFA. "Nobody else got as much of half that number."
He said the two deputy chairmen, Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao, had each received "between 2,000 and 3,000 votes."
Lin, who remains in his appointed post as Wukan party secretary, vowed to "strengthen party leadership and democratic autonomy" during his next term in office.
"I also want to strengthen the power of the village committee to supervise [government]," he said.
Lin said party rules dictate he would have been required to resign as party secretary if he hadn't been elected chairman of the village committee.
Suspicions of interference
Monday's election comes just weeks after Yang and Hong were detained on alleged corruption charges and a third former Wukan committee member fled to the United States, prompting growing suspicion that the election was manipulated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Today's election process basically went OK, without too much fakery," Yang Semao, who is still on bail on bribery charges and under house arrest, told RFA on Monday.
"However, there was a lot of misleading information and interference before that, definitely," said Yang.
China's official Xinhua news agency said Wukan, which gripped world headlines in 2011 after local people fought off armed police at makeshift barricades, had been "shamed" by the allegations against Yang and Hong.
But both men say the charges were linked to payments placed in their bank accounts and later returned by them, and that the charges were intended to deter them from seeking re-election on Monday.
Last week, a third protest leader, Zhuang Liehong, who fled to New York in February, said he wanted to remain in the United States for fear of "retaliatory action" by the authorities after the elections.
He said the arrests of deputy village committee chairmen Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao on bribery charges in recent weeks had made him fear he would be next.
Hundreds of Wukan 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 sell-offs by former party secretary Xue Chang, who has since been disciplined for corruption.
Xue Chang was ousted after four decades in charge of Wukan following a protracted campaign of peaceful protest and a face-off over roadblocks and barricades with armed police in December 2011.
Six protest leaders, including Yang, Hong and Zhuang, 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.
The atmosphere at Monday's poll was markedly different from that of the elections two years ago, which took place without official interference, and amid a sense of a rare victory for ordinary Chinese people in the face of official corruption.
Hong Ruiqing, sister of detained former vice-chairman and protest leader Hong Ruichao, said there had been plenty of behind-the-scenes maneuvering ahead of Monday's election, by contrast.
"It was raining pretty hard today, and not many people came to the polling station," she said.
"But they said that the turnout was more than 90 percent. How is that possible?"
Hong said her brother had also polled "a large number" of votes from all subdistricts of the village, but said that final figures had yet to be announced.
Counting took place behind closed doors, although ballot boxes were opened in public, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
China began rolling out its grass-roots electoral system in villages decades ago, but such polls are in reality still tightly controlled by the government, and firebrand leaders who do get elected have been subjected to violent attacks, detention and other forms of official reprisals.
Checks and balances
Beijing-based rural elections expert Xiong Wei said this year's poll lacked the same checks and balances as that of 2012.
"There is not the same monitoring as before, so the villagers worry that the results can be faked," he told AFP.
Village committee member Zhang Jianxing welcomed Lin's re-election, but said the biggest issue facing Wukan was the loss of income from farmland.
The Wukan village committee is still in the process of repossessing a tranche of more than 450 mu (74 acres) of farmland, which was handed back to the committee by Lufeng Fengtian Livestock, owned by Hong Kong businessman Chan Man Ching.
However, villagers say that Wukan has so far managed to recover just 3,000 mu (200 hectares) of a total of nearly 10,000 mu (666 hectares) of farmland sold off by former village chief Xue Chang, who was later removed from his post and expelled from the party.
"The villagers have no money now, and no way to raise funds," Zhang said. "So any kind of development is very problematic."
He called on the newly elected committee to focus on boosting the local economy.
"I hope that there will be some sort of movement on the issue of getting our land back."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.