A year ago, the villagers of Wukan in Guangdong province forced their corrupt local leader to flee in a rebellion that shook the Communist Party and which serves as a warning to the country's incoming leaders.
At a congress starting on Thursday, the party will anoint a new chief for the next 10 years, whose regime will have to address growing anger over graft and challenges from a vocal band of dissidents and rights activists.
In the Wukan revolt, villagers defied the usually iron-fisted police and forced their long-standing party chief to flee after angry demonstrations denouncing shady land deals during his decades-long tenure. The crisis was defused in December when provincial authorities in Guangdong stepped in, agreed to untangle the complex web of land transfers to private developers, sacked the party chief and allowed villagers to hold elections.
The newly elected deputy head of the village has a message for Xi Jinping, the 59-year-old vice-president who is widely expected to be promoted to Communist Party general secretary this week and then state president next year.
"If they don't wipe out and punish corruption, then things are only going to get worse," Yang Semao said in Wukan, a small fishing and farming village of about 12,000 people.
"If they don't crack down on graft, then you are only going to encourage more people to be corrupt [and] the new government leaders will become corrupt," he said.
The unprecedented government backdown in Wukan was seen by many of the mainland's 650 million farmers and a growing community of human rights activists as a victory over despotism.
"The numbers of mass protests are increasing day by day and the scope is expanding. The 'hated official' and the 'hated rich' are becoming a part of the social psychology," said government critic Yang Jisheng, a retired editor at the state-run news agency Xinhua.
"This means political reform is urgently needed."
To quell the unrest, China's parliament this year approved a US$111 billion annual budget for what it calls "stability maintenance". "Currently the budget for stability maintenance exceeds that of national defence," said Bao Tong, the highest Communist Party official jailed following the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.
"This is a phenomenon very rarely seen in the world. No country in the world makes its own people the biggest enemy."
Encouraging the "Wukan model" of free local elections is one option available to Xi and his comrades in the leadership, but some residents say it has not brought the accountability they had hoped for.
"Nothing has been resolved, we have been cheated," resident Liu Hanxu said over a game of cards with his neighbours in Wukan's village square. "We want the land back, we want money for the land that was stolen from us. Nothing has been resolved, they are cheating the people."