Rural democracy struggles to survive
The election of relatively lowly village leaders often attracts fervent attention from foreign media and observers.
For many, the rural democracy endorsed by the Communist Party since the mid-1980s is a rare bright spot on China's human rights record and a 'silent revolution' that could drive the mainland towards democracy.
The Government revised the Organic Law of the Villager Committee in late 1998 - which improved procedures by allowing multiple candidacies and a secret ballot - as an attempt to diffuse rising tensions in the vast hinterland.
It hoped that by allowing villagers to choose their own leaders, they could develop trust with each other and thus reduce the clashes.
Tension nevertheless escalated over the years, mainly because of the exorbitant fees and levies on peasants. A Sichuan village party boss who petitioned provincial leaders during the National People's Congress last month said resentment was strong.
'The Government keeps talking about development. But the farmers are getting poorer and poorer.
'The countryside is pretty unstable nowadays.' Foreign relief workers have said disgruntled villagers beat up village leaders over trivial arguments.
So has rural democracy failed, or is it too optimistic that such limited democracy can ensure stability in the countryside? According to Dr Liu Yawei, associate director of China Village Election Project at the US-based Carter Centre, only about a quarter of the 830,000 village committees were elected correctly.
It contradicted claims by the Ministry of Civil Affairs that more than half the villages in China now hold democratic elections, he said.
Meanwhile, many village officials were 'elected' under heavy interference - if not manipulation - by the township governments. Bribery and clan influence also undermined the polls.
A mainland journalist commented: 'Of course the peasants are not getting along with the village officials. Imagine who gives you the job as a village leader: if it is the township government, who will you serve?' Even if the elected village officials wanted to be accountable to voters, they often found themselves straitjacketed because the village committees enjoy limited policy-making power.
Many academics and officials believe introducing elections at the township level is an inevitable step to assuage rural grievances.
A village is only a self-contained unit, while a township has the greater power over spending on infrastructure, tax collection, schools and hospitals. Townships also oversee funds allocated by the central Government and land leases.
So far three township elections have been held, but were treated with caution - if not reluctance - despite some support from above, according to Dr Liu.
The most famous was held on December 31, 1998, in Buyung township, Sichuan.
Initiated by township officials, the election drew widespread attention and was hailed as a giant step towards democracy. It stirred so much controversy that the authorities ordered a news blackout and branded the result 'unconstitutional'.
The other two smaller elections were held in Linyi county, Shanxi province, and Dapeng county near Shenzhen, Guangdong last April.
The authorities were obviously worried about these polls. They wanted to avoid sending the wrong message that the Communist Party would relinquish its monopoly on power, Dr Liu said.
The experiment of township elections has temporarily ground to a halt, and it is unclear when the authorities might approve another.
Premier Zhu Rongji last month said: 'I can only say, the sooner the better.' But Beijing will have to be quick if it is serious about promoting grassroots elections to help ensure stability in the countryside. The peasants are getting impatient.