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Rebellious Chinese village's experiment with democracy sours

Villagers gather outside the Wukan Communist Party offices to protest about land disputes in Wukan village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong Friday.
Villagers gather outside the Wukan Communist Party offices to protest about land disputes in Wukan village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong Friday.Staff / Reuters

WUKAN, China -- One of China's most celebrated experiments in grass-roots democracy showed signs of faltering on Friday, as frustrations with elected officials in the southern fishing village of Wukan triggered a small and angry protest.

On the first anniversary of an uprising that gave birth to the experiment, more than 100 villagers rallied outside Wukan's Communist Party offices to express anger at what they saw as slow progress by the village's democratically elected governing committee to resolve local land disputes.

"We still haven't got our land back," shouted Liu Hancai, a retired 62-year-old party member, one of many villagers fighting to win back land that was seized by Wukan's previous administration and illegally sold for development.

PhotoBlog: Chinese villagers defy government in standoff over land rights

The small crowd, many on motorbikes, was kept under tight surveillance by plain-clothed officials fearful of any broader unrest breaking out. Police cars were patrolling the streets.

"There would be more people here, but many people are afraid of trouble and won't come out," Liu told Reuters.

A year ago, Wukan became a beacon of rights activism after the land seizures sparked unrest and led to the sacking of local party officials. That in turn led to village-wide elections for a more representative committee to help resolve the rows.

Growing pains?
Friday's demonstration was far less heated than the protests that earned Wukan headlines around the world last year. But the small rally reveals how early optimism has soured for some.

Nevertheless, Wukan's elderly village chief and former protest leader, Lin Zuluan, who was voted into office on a landslide, stressed these grievances were natural teething problems with any fledgling democracy.

He stressed his administration had made concrete strides including wresting back 625 acres and implementing clean, legal and open administrative practices including full disclosure of village finances and open tenders for projects.

"At this starting point for Wukan there will definitely exist some problems but it doesn't mean there hasn't been democracy or that we have made major mistakes," he said.

In March, expectations were high in this village, built near a sheltered harbor fringed by mountains, after Lin and his fellow elected leaders pledged to swiftly resolve the land issue.

Villagers defiant as government creates new narrative

Lin said complex land contracts and bureaucratic red-tape were hindering their work, with nearly 700 disputed hectares still unaccounted for.

Some critics say the village committee, which includes several young leaders of last year's protests, lacked administrative experience, failed to engage the public and allowed itself to be out-maneuvered by higher party authorities.

Shady deals
"They were people's heroes," said Chen Jinchao, a villager still trying to get back about 1.6 acres of farmland.

"But now we see them differently. We don't have any new hope. What's the point of electing them if they can't solve the (land) problem?" he added.

Some say recent discord has been partly sown by allies of the former disgraced village leader, Xue Chang, while higher officials in the Shanwei county seat of government remain tangled in shady deals involving hundreds of acres of Wukan land in a new economic development zone.

"If Shanwei's corrupt officials aren't cleaned out completely, it is very difficult for us to move forward," said Zhang Jiancheng, one of the young activists elected onto the village committee.

"Of every 100 things, we may do 50 of them. But people only complain about the 50 things we don't do ... The village committee has been trying to get the land back piece by piece. It's been a very painful process but we must follow legal procedures."

Journalist beatings erase Wukan optimism

With China about to choose new leaders, any further unrest at Wukan could impact Guangdong province's high-flying leader, Wang Yang, hailed as a reformer by some for defusing the Wukan standoff by acceding to key village demands and averting a potentially bloody crackdown.

Read more news from China on NBC's Behind The Wall

Some villagers have spoken of marching again and putting real pressure on county and provincial authorities.

"In the end, if they really force us to the very limits, it will be like a volcano exploding," said a senior villager who asked not to be named. "You can't control it."

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