|Wukan has proved a beacon for civil rights activists, who flocked to the village to observe the polls [AFP]
Residents of a southern Chinese village have elected a reformist leader to run a new administrative authority that many hail as a model for greater democracy following an uncompromising standoff over land grabs and abuse of power.
Some 6,800 residents queued to cast ballots in seven metal election boxes, backing many former protest leaders, including those jailed in December, for a seven-person village committee.
Lin Zuluan, a respected village elder and a chief organiser of the civil movement in Wukan against corrupt authorities, won 6,205 votes in a landslide victory for village chief, reflecting confidence in his ability to win back illegally sold farmland.
"With this kind of recognition from the villagers, I'll work doubly hard for them," he said on Saturday after addressing a cheering crowd and journalists gathered at night to hear the final results, with a turnout of nearly 80 per cent.
Wukan, located on the Guangdong coast, has emerged from nowhere as a symbol of rural activism and electoral reforms nationwide, embracing rare freedoms granted by provincial authorities in December to defuse a major flashpoint.
Another protest leader Yang Semao was elected deputy village chief, while the five other seats will be filled in a runoff on Sunday that many expect to see a new guard of activists and reformists secure majority control of the committee under Lin.
The polls were wrought after a months-long strugglethat saw villagers clash with riot police, ransack government offices, expel a corrupt old guard and form a self-administrative authority. It all came to a head in December, when villagers barricaded themselves in against riot police.
Guangdong authorities, led by ambitious Communist Party leader Wang Yang, intervened, naming Lin as party secretary and allowing fresh village polls in surprisingly liberal concessions.
| In December 2011, thousands of people in China's Guangdong province turned out to mourn Xue Jinbo
Unlike the many flareups over land grabs and corruption across China every year, Wukan residents managed to move beyond organised protest to organised politics in a bid to win back illegally sold farmland and safeguard future rights.
While elections have been permitted for decades, Wukan has pushed the boundaries, with Lin and a vanguard of young activists able to unify the village against higher authorities.
Resolving tensions over land grabs, a major source of civil unrest each year, has been a priority for China's leadership.
Premier Wen Jiabao recently vowed to bolster the village committee electoral process to better address China's failure to give adequate protection against rural land seizures.
The Wukan experience has proved a beacon for civil rights activists, grassroots democracy advocates, petitioners from other villages, academics and Chinese journalists, who've flocked to the region to observe the polls.
"Wukan is an example for us," said Hua Youjuan, a village chief from Huangshan in eastern China, where residents have also rallied against corruption. "What Wukan has achieved through its solidarity is something we can learn from."
Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan, reporting from Beijing, said this model of democracy "is not going to spread across China".
However, what is important is that "it is happening in this one village and it is starting a conversation in China, a place where people are electing their village leaders today", she said.
"And that is quite something in authoritarian China".
In a sign of growing international interest, the US government sent an observer to the election, , who was himself
closely watched by government minders and local police.
"We continue to monitor developments in Wukan closely," said Paul Baldwin, the US consul from Guangzhou who visited the village.
"I hope we can elect a village committee that truly works for the people's interests and wins back every inch of land stolen from us"
- Wu Ruidu, Wukan resident
Behind the scenes, authorities at the city and county level have been exerting a high degree of control. Some fear clans and allies of former village chief Xue Chang, whom many accuse of pocketing millions from selling off collective farmland, are vying to maintain influence.
Xue Jianwan, 22, the daughter of Xue Jinbo, a protest leader who was abducted and died in police detention in December, said senior local officials had urged her to drop from running as a candidate for the village committee.
On Saturday evening it was announced that she would not contest a runoff poll.
Other young leaders, who played a key role in publicising corruption that saw hundreds of hectares of Wukan farmland sold off in illegal deals, have spoken of extensive surveillance, police pressure and fears of reprisals.
In February, Wukan elected an election committee to oversee Saturday's proceedings. Now the stakes are higher.
The seven-member village committee, including a village chief and two deputies, will have power over local finances and the sale and apportioning of collectively owned village land.
Residents hope the common practice of powerful officials and strongmen controlling lucrative land deals will become a thing of the past.
"To get this far hasn't been easy," said Wu Ruidu, a 37-year-old at the polling station. "I hope we can elect a village committee that truly works for the people's interests and wins back every inch of land stolen from us."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies