REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Two leaders of protests last year in a southern Chinese village were elected over the weekend to a village council in balloting that was closely watched for clues of possible liberalization within the Chinese Communist Party.
Although the election in Wukan village was not the first of its kind, the village in Guangdong province has become a test case for how far the party is willing to go to accommodate local grievances and demands for a more accountable government.
The fishing village last year erupted in furor over sale of its farmland to real estate developers, a volatile issue throughout fast-developing rural China.
In Wukan, villagers went further than many others. They ransacked a police station, kicked out their leaders and erected barricades, keeping Chinese authorities out for 10 days in December until a compromise could be negotiated.
The vote held Saturday was part of that compromise. Lin Zuluan, a protest organizer was elected village head and party secretary, and another protester, Yang Semao, was picked as his deputy.
"Taking the posts of both party secretary and village chief on my shoulders is a very heavy responsibility. My primary job is to get back the land," Lin told reporters in Wukan late Saturday.
According to Chinese state media, 8,300 registered voters in a population of about 12,000 in Wukan were eligible to participate. The voting was the last of a three-phase election that selected an 11-member election committee and 109 village representatives in February.
Chinese scholars have estimated that there are up to 90,000 "mass incidents" each year in this vast country, many of them triggered by land confiscations and allegations of corruption. The default response of Chinese authorities is to storm in with force and arrest the leaders. In fact, Wukan started much that way. In mid-December, a 42-year-old protest leader, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody. His family believes he was beaten and tortured.
His daughter, Xue Jianwan, had been a candidate but dropped out of the race at the last minute under pressure from family members and local authorities.
With its proximity to Hong Kong, Guangdong is the most politically liberal part of China. The compromise that allowed the elections was the handiwork of the province’s party chief, Wang Yang, who is believed to be a voice for democratic reform within the leadership. The success or failure of the compromise may contribute to whether Wang wins a seat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo during an expected reshuffle this year.
The U.S. consul in Guangzhou was permitted to observe Saturday’s election.
China has held elections for village seats since the 1980s, but people complain that the elections aren’t fair and that the candidates supported by the Communist Party invariably win.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: A vote is cast Saturday in the village of Wukan in China's southern province of Guangdong as residents participate in leadership election. Credit: Peter Parks / AFP/Getty Images