WUKAN: Residents of a Chinese village who voted for new leaders in weekend elections after rising up against corrupt officials are hoping they will become a model of democracy in the one-party state.
But experts are more sceptical. They doubt the victory will be replicated in other areas with similar grievances and say Wukan's energetic and youthful new leaders face an uphill struggle to resolve villagers' long-standing complaints.
Villagers began protesting in September, driving out leaders they say had sold off much of their land over the years to enrich themselves.
When one of the protest leaders died in police custody in December, villagers took their protest a step further, barricading roads leading into Wukan and facing off with security forces for 10 days.
Communist Party authorities backed down and promised the residents rare concessions, including pledges to allow village polls to be held in an open manner – a first in Wukan.
"Authorities say they want to make Wukan an experiment in democracy and an economic experiment," said 26-year-old Zhang Jiancheng, one of seven members of the new leadership committee in Wukan, in the prosperous southern province of Guangdong.
"They want to build it up to make it into a model village."
The Wukan election came after residents rose up against corrupt leaders in a country that does not normally tolerate dissent, and has generated huge excitement among China's growing army of Internet users.
"We must not only expand the Wukan experience to the rest of Guangdong, but also expand this enlightened experience – which Guangdong dared to implement first – to the whole country," posted one.
The election attracted scores of onlookers from different parts of the province and from further afield – including villagers from elsewhere in the country desperate to publicise their own grievances.
But in an indication authorities were unwilling to let the so-called "Wukan model" spread beyond village borders, those petitioners were all quickly carted away.
"There are two aspects to the Wukan events – the protests and the village election," said Xiong Wei, a Beijing-based grassroots democracy activist who spent months in Wukan.
"The protests will be difficult to replicate elsewhere, as the success of protests in Wukan was due to several specific elements such as the number of people living in Wukan, how united they are."
But he said the voting process could easily be emulated.
Unlike in Wukan, where leaders ruled uninterrupted for over 40 years, other villages in China have held direct elections for decades, although they do not always proceed smoothly and the committees wield little power.
Wang Yang – the hugely influential party boss of Guangdong, who is widely viewed as politically progressive – has played down the significance of the weekend ballot.
"What they did was implement (the laws) in a very complete way, correcting the way in which the elections had been held in the past," he said in Beijing this week.
Wang has been praised for his deft handling of the situation in Wukan. Zheng Yongnian, politics professor at the National University of Singapore, said he had implemented other small-scale reforms in Guangdong to decentralise power.
"It's an important step in China's political process... He is trying to make it so the government manages less, but well," said Zheng.
In Wukan, Zhang said the committee had bold plans that included resolving the land issues, improving sanitation and rebuilding old houses.
And in a notable difference to other villages, Lin Zulian, who was elected head of the committee at the weekend, was also appointed party chief of Wukan several months ago – a position that wields more authority.
"The power often resides with the party secretary, who is appointed by the township government," said Graeme Smith, an expert on rural China at the University of Technology in Sydney.
"It's a little bit meaningless if the guy who ultimately has the say in the village is not elected by the villagers. So that's the radical departure in Wukan."
But experts still questioned how much the village committee would be able to improve things.
"In the end, the real power resides two rungs up the chain in the county government, which has enormous discretionary power," said Smith.
"If you're talking about meaningful democracy, it has to happen at that level."