(Changes date from September to December in paragraph 3)
* Fishing village pushes bounds of China grassroots
* Protest leader wins landslide to become village chief
* Activists hope Wukan "model" will spread across China
* U.S. government sends election observer
By James Pomfret
WUKAN, China, March 3 Residents of a
southern Chinese village on Saturday elected a reformist leader
to run a new administrative authority that many hail as a model
for greater grassroots democracy following an uncompromising
standoff over land grabs and abuse of power.
The fishing village of Wukan, nestled on the Guangdong coast
with a picturesque harbour flanked by hills, 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.
Spilling into a school festooned with red banners, some
6800 residents queued to cast pink 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
6205 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 after addressing a cheering crowd
and journalists gathered at night to hear the final results,
with a turnout of nearly 80 percent.
Another protest leader Yang Semao was elected deputy village
chief, while the five other seats will be filled in a run-off 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 struggle that 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
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 gritty 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."
In a sign of growing international interest, the U.S.
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 U.S. consul from Guangzhou who visited the village.
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 wouldn't
contest a run-off 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
broad-shouldered 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."
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Sanjeev Miglani)