Voters flocked to vote in the renegade fishing village of Wukan, in China's southern Guandong province, after residents won the right to an election in a face-off with authorities last year.
People lined up under police supervision to cast their votes for village committee members on Saturday; for many it was the first time they have ever been able to cast their vote. While village elections have been allowed for around three decades, many people believe they have always been rigged.
Onlookers are thus calling Wukan's Saturday elections the freest they have seen to take place in the People's Republic of China.
"For the first time in decades, this is an opportunity for democracy. Both myself and the villagers like this," said Lin Zuluan, Wukan's 67-year-old communist party secretary and a candidate to lead the village committee, told Reuters.
Some of the village's 12,000 residentslined up at polling stations, eager to vote.
"They've given us a democratic election, I'm so happy," Zhang Bingchangsaid as he waited in line.
"It is open and transparent," another voter said.
Some people hope the elections will become a model for the rest of China.
"Wukan is an example for us," said Hua Youjuan, a village chief from Huangshan in eastern China, said. Residents in her village have also rallied against corruption. "What Wukan has achieved through its solidarity is something we can learn from."
But others believe the election is significant due to its symbolic value.
"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," she told the Associated Press news agency.
Standoff with authorities
The villagers of Wukan, located not far from semi-autonomous Hong Kong, won the right to go to the polls after a standoff with authorities last year.
The residents of the village had taken to the streets to speak out against land confiscations and government corruption. Local administrative buildings were ransacked and police vehicles turned up-side-down as expropriated landowners demanded compensation.
In November Chinese Internet news services reported one demonstration alone in which over 4,000 villagers participated. They held up banners reading "Grant us our human rights!" and "End the dictatorship!" Thousands of police were deployed. The village was locked down and communication lines were blocked.
The situation escalated in December, after one of the protesters, community leader Xue Xinbo, died while in police custody - something the authorities blamed on heart failure. His family maintained he had been beaten to death.
Anger flared among the villagers, who ended up barricading themselves inside the village for 10 days, until a deal was struck with authorities.
Though the Chinese media played down the demonstrations and blocked all Internet searches referring to them, the government agreed to allow the village to hold new elections.
Wukan's is a seldom tale in China, which tends to respond to dissent with a heavy hand.
sb/ncy (Reuters, AP, AFP)