YINGKOU, China -- Ma Endong was supposed to retire as village chief this year and make way for a younger man approved by the Communist Party. At least that was the plan, until the villagers had their say.
Worried that the party's choice was inept, they persuaded Mr. Ma to run again. And in an election that was more democratic than not, Mr. Ma won easily -- an example of rural democracy in China, where real choices of candidates and secret ballots are no longer unknown.
To be sure, the system leaves much to be desired, and probably only a small minority of China's 1 million villages enjoy democratic elections.
"This is not going to bring democracy to the countryside and cities by 2010, or even to the countryside by then, but it is significant," said Phyllis Chang, a program officer with the Ford Foundation, which has helped the Chinese government organize the votes. "It gives people experience in casting votes and seeing that they can have a choice."
In a series of elections in villages around the port city of Yingkou, foreign observers found that balloting was rarely secret and that the nomination of candidates was controlled by the Communist Party. The counting of votes was also imperfect -- in one village, officials ran in and out of a room with their pockets stuffed with the bright red ballots.
But local elections have become a pet project of foreign development organizations. Even Chinese dissidents exiled in the United States pin hope on these votes, seeing them as the only way to bring lasting political change.
The elections also enjoy some high-level support in Beijing, where they are seen as a way to defuse tensions in the countryside. With peasants disgruntled over inflation, high taxes and government corruption, rural unrest has become a major national issue. By giving peasants a chance to throw out the most corrupt officials, the government hopes to end the small-scale revolts that are occurring across the country.
But the elections do not enjoy universal support, as shown by the lack of attention they have received in the state-run press. The elections have been championed by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, a ministry better known for flood control and labor insurance. Since the ministry has no budget for elections, they are financed largely at the whim of local authorities -- or simply not held.
"They still have to convince some very hard-nosed officials in the government before this becomes more widespread," said Kevin O'Brien, a professor of political science at Ohio State University who has studied the elections for several years. "There are still a lot of doubts."
The elections began spontaneously in the early 1980s after rural reforms gave peasants land to till and also brought an end to the socialist production brigades that had run village life for decades. Villages began organizing local assemblies, bringing together representatives of leading families.
This ad hoc arrangement was endorsed by China's Parliament in 1987, despite predictions that elections would weaken the party's grip on rural China. The law calls for election of three- to seven-member village committees, which would be accountable to the village assemblies.
Like China's economic reforms, the political reforms vary from province to province, county to county, even village to village. Even in model towns and provinces, the elections can be manipulated by the party.
In Gangtie village outside Yingkou, for example, the party secretary served as chairman of the election commission, which winnowed the number of candidates for village chief to two, from 34. The commission's choices: the incumbent, who was vice secretary of the local party organization, and another leading party member, who as a woman had little chance of winning the votes of conservative peasants.
Not surprisingly, the incumbent won -- but even if he had lost, the party would have won.
Even where nonparty people slip through the nomination process and win, the party has another weapon: recruiting the winner as a party member. A government study found that about 40 percent of the newly elected members of the village committees are nonparty members, but about half soon join the party.
In an election near the provincial capital of Shenyang, villagers humiliated the party candidate -- giving him 25 votes against 590 votes for a prominent businessman. Sympathetic officials cite those results as examples of how the election system could develop.
Parliament could pass a stronger measure that would encourage secret ballots and the offering of a choice of candidates. A draft of that law could be voted on by the end of the year.
Political activists hope the elections will prepare China's 800 million rural residents for full democracy. But not everyone sees the elections in such lofty terms.
"The main thing nowadays isn't politics but economic development," said Ma Yongzhen, a 55-year-old factory worker in Gangtie village. "I voted for the man who can do that the best. Not because he's a party member or not."