RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

In southern China, a village that rebelled against corrupt Communist officials has gone to the polls. And the two big winners are the main leaders of that rebellion in the village of Wukan. Reformers hope this could become some kind of model promoting grassroots democracy to resolve disputes. But others have drawn different lessons from the rebellious village.

NPR's Louisa Lim has been watching the elections in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: With a flourish, polling opened at 9 sharp at Wukan village school.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHINESE NATIONAL ANTHEM)

LIM: The national anthem rang out, red banners hanging from the building call for the law to be respected. Just three months ago, the banners here were calling for the downfall of corrupt officials, accused by villagers of seizing their land. Now the old officials are gone and the villagers are choosing their new leaders.

HUANG MEIZHI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I'm 40 years old, said voter Huang Meizhi, beaming, And I've never held a ballot in my hand before. Wukan has never had a proper election before.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

LIM: This election is unusual, in that it was the result of a rebellion. But actually village elections in China are supposed to be exercises in democracy. The fact they often aren't shows how frequently the law is ignored. And even in this show election, there has been pressure on one candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND MACHINERY)

LIM: Twenty-one year old Xue Jianwan is the center of attention as she casts her pink ballot. Her father, Xue Jinbo, was a protest leader who died in police custody in December. She's now standing for election against the wishes of some of her family, her employers and local officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF A WHISTLE)

XUE JIANWAN: (Through Translator) I haven't solved the problem of pressure from my family, so my mood is rather heavy. If I want to be elected, then it seems I have to quit my job. So I'm very conflicted.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

LIM: It's hard to reconcile the orderly voting with the serious demonstrations staged by the same villagers three months ago. Back in September, some villagers smashed cars and a police station. During their 10-day standoff in December, they chased out Communist officials, and then were blockaded into Wukan by paramilitary police.

Yang Semao was a protest leader. He's just been elected deputy head of the village committee. He denies their methods were extreme.

YANG SEMAO: (Through Translator) We had no other choice. No one paid any attention to petitions, so the people got furious and there was some violence. I don't think it should be considered extreme.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOTS AND CONVERSATION)

LIM: As the ballots are counted in Wukan, a new election remains a fantasy just down the road in Longtou, also known as Longguang. Here, too, have been protesting against land seizures for years. But so far, the events in Wukan haven't helped them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

LIM: The government has dealt with Wukan, but our situation is still messy and they're not dealing with us, says one villager, who asked for his name not to be used. Otherwise, another resident says, we'll join together with seven or eight other villages. Then we'd be tens of thousands of people.

The fundamental problem remains rampant land seizures. A recent survey by the Seattle-based Landesa Research Group found almost half the Chinese villages surveyed, 43 percent, reported land had been taken by the state for non-agricultural purposes. And kicking out the village leadership and electing new leaders doesn't necessarily address that problem.

Xiao Shu, an outspoken intellectual, believes real land reform is needed.

XIAO SHU: (Through Translator) I think the basic problem is the collective ownership of rural land. The thing is that the collective doesn't exist. Actually, it's just disguised government ownership or ownership by officials. So the government should implement rural land ownership rights to make sure each farmer owns land.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LIM: Applause greets the election results, as the rebel leaders become part of the establishment. This model election is an experiment. It shows new flexibility from the local government, a willingness to work with protest leaders rather than arresting them. But it's not clear yet whether and how land will be returned, or if Wukan's experience will be a trailblazer, or simply - as its neighbors fear - as a high-profile exception.

Louisa Lim NPR News, Shenzhen, China.

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