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Originally published Friday, March 2, 2012 at 7:51 PM

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Chinese who ousted village leaders head to polls

Villagers who rebelled against officials they accused of stealing their farmland voted for new leaders on Saturday in a much-watched election reformers hope will promote democracy as a way to settle many of the myriad disputes besetting China.

Associated Press

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WUKAN, China —

Villagers who rebelled against officials they accused of stealing their farmland voted for new leaders on Saturday in a much-watched election reformers hope will promote democracy as a way to settle many of the myriad disputes besetting China.

Thousands of villagers, watched by dozens of foreign and Chinese journalists, filled in pink ballots for the seven-member village committee and dropped them into metal boxes in the southeastern fishing village. Villagers could vote for anyone, though 23 people announced their candidacies. Voters said the new leadership should improve local livelihoods.

"Because it is good for the development of our village when we can pick a good leader, right?" said Yang Zunpei, who traveled back home from the small business he runs in another part of Guangdong province. "We were suppressed by the former leaders. It was impossible for the village to have a better development. Many corrupt leaders left our village underdeveloped."

China has allowed villages to hold elections for nearly three decades to select committees to manage finances, land use and other local affairs. In practice, however, the elections have been rife with problems. Elected leaders, backed by popular support, often rival local Communist Party officials. Feeling threatened, party officials have often tried to manipulate the results. The effect over time has been to sap confidence in the village elections.

By those standards, Wukan is conducting what appears to be one of China's freest polls, and some believe it is blazing a path for others to follow. The vote attracted attention in China's avid micro-blog community, with some contrasting it with two tightly scripted political meetings being held in Beijing. Villagers pronounced the poll open and transparent.

"Hopefully local authorities in other places of Guangdong and even other provinces will refer to Wukan as a precedent when they face similar situations," said Li Lianjiang, an expert on Chinese local elections and protests at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Tens of thousands of protests occur in China each year, many of them compounded by indifferent if not corrupt local officials. As in many villages, Wukan's troubles arose over land. Villagers said the local head, in power for decades, sold their farmland to developers without their consent.

Protests flared last year, with villagers smashing a police station and cars. After key village activists were detained in December, villagers drove out officials and barricaded themselves in for 10 days, keeping police out and holding boisterous rallies.

Unlike similar standoffs in China that often end in arrests, the provincial government conceded. It offered to stage new elections, return some of the disputed farmland and release the detained activists, as well as the body of one who died in detention.

The result was hailed by more liberal Chinese state media and democratic campaigners as the "Wukan model" - a systematic approach in which the government puts the interests of villagers ahead of its usual emphasis on maintaining order, often backed by police. Wang Yang, Guangdong's party secretary who has a reputation as a reformer, said Wukan showed that a balance can be struck between "preserving stability and preserving rights."

Many experts, however, said it's far too soon to say if political leaders will summon the will to replicate Wukan's experience elsewhere.

"Wukan so far is an exceptional case," said Li Fan, who runs a private think tank in Beijing that has been involved in local government experiments. "In this case, no matter how well the Wukan village elections proceed, the impact on the development of grass-roots democracy is very limited."

Even so, the fact that many of the activists in Wukan's revolt ran for membership in the village committee is a precedent. To defuse protests, local governments often make concessions, then arrest ringleaders when tempers have subsided, a practice known as "settling accounts after the harvest."

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