By James Pomfret
WUKAN, China (Reuters) - 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 September, for a seven-person village committee.
Lin Zuluan, a respected village elder and a chief organizer 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 concessions.
Unlike the many flare-ups over land grabs and corruption across China every year, Wukan residents managed to move beyond organized protest to organized 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 publicizing 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)