By James Pomfret
WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Hundreds of Chinese clapped and cheered their favorite candidates on Wednesday ahead of the election of a new village committee, creating a front line of democratic activism after a violent standoff over corrupt land grabs.
Over the past month, the southern fishing village of Wukan has embraced rare freedoms granted by provincial authorities in December to defuse a major flashpoint after residents rose up, expelled village authorities and barricaded themselves in for 10 days.
Villagers have been busy preparing for a series of polls, with surprisingly liberal and at times groundbreaking electoral processes that have unnerved hard-line county authorities and an ousted old guard tainted by corruption.
Underneath, villagers say tension remains.
While village elections have been permitted since the late 1980s, Wukan has pushed the bounds of rural democratic experimentation, led by a visionary village party secretary and a vanguard of resourceful young activists able to unify the village against higher authorities.
Hundreds gathered on Wednesday to hear about 20 candidates give their stump speeches at a local theatre opposite a colorful temple. Crowds cheered and clapped for candidates through the warm, festive afternoon. Patriotic Chinese music blared and red banners were out, including one with the words "democratic harmony."
"I will serve the people in doing good deeds," pledged Lin Zuluan, the elderly villager who led the protests last year and sole candidate to be chief of the village committee.
"Lead the villagers to protect their legal rights and use legal means to get back the farmland that was illegally sold by corrupt officials in collusion with businessmen," Lin boomed to the crowd.
Some candidates nervously practiced their speeches, some scrawled on bits of paper. Others smoked backstage.
Wukan's symbolic battle for grassroots rights has drawn growing international attention. A U.S. diplomatic source said an observer would be sent to watch Saturday's proceedings.
The polls were hard wrought from a months-long struggle last year that saw Wukan's 12,000 or so villagers clash with riot police, ransack government offices, expel a corrupt old guard and form a self-administrative authority.
It all came a head in December, when villagers barricaded themselves in against riot police. Guangdong provincial authorities, led by the ambitious Communist Party leader, Wang Yang, intervened to resolve the conflict, naming the rebel leader Lin as party secretary in a surprising concession.
But many of the village's protest leaders who spearheaded the campaign against illegal land grabs speak of residual anxiety.
"WE DON'T FEEL SAFE GOING OUT"
Xiong Wei, a Beijing-based lobbyist for grassroots democracy and an electoral adviser in Wukan, was being pursued for questioning by police authorities, sources close to him said, including a senior police officer from the county government of Shanwei who enquired about his whereabouts daily.
On Xiong's microblogging site, he spoke of fears for his personal safety, having to sleep under a new roof every night, while never going anywhere without an escort of several men.
Hong Ruichao, 28, a former protest leader abducted and jailed by police for nearly two weeks and now seeking office as one of two deputy village chiefs, said he was tailed by a car several days ago to a nearby town.
"We don't feel safe going out now. Some people are blacklisted," said Zhuang Liehong, another young village leader.
"I don't leave the village now if at all possible."
In the evenings, reformist village leaders have huddled in small, mildewed village homes, drinking tea, wine and beer, ironing out logistical and electoral issues in what for many, has been an unprecedented, crash course in electoral politics.
Unlike a February 1 poll to elect an election committee to oversee proceedings, the stakes are much higher in Saturday's election.
The seven-member village committee, including a village chief and two deputies, has real power over local finances and the future sale and apportioning of valuable farmland.
Some fear the corrupt old guard of former village chief Xue Chang, whom many accuse of pocketing millions from selling off collective farmland, is vying to maintain its influence.
Still, Wukan is pressing ahead with the election that it hopes will offer institutional safeguards against future abuse of government power and corruption with innovative touches.
One major, unsanctioned innovation has been the formation of a 107-member, so-called village council, a kind of ombudsman to check the powers of the village committee. The polls also have seen other progressive touches, including secret ballot boxes and opening the field to any candidates by scrapping threshold nomination requirements. That move drew a flush of entrants.
"Democracy is very important," said Chen Suzhuan, one of two female candidates fighting for a spot on the village committee. "Because without democracy, it would be like before when there were no rights in the village."
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Nick Macfie)