WUKAN, China (Reuters) - 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 threatened to boil over into protests.
Only a year ago, Wukan became a beacon of rights activism after land disputes there sparked unrest and led to the sacking of local Communist Party officials. That in turn led to village-wide elections for a more representative local governing committee to help resolve the bitter rows.
But early optimism has turned to disappointment, with hundreds of fishermen vowing to lay down their nets on Friday, the first anniversary of Wukan's initial village-wide march, to protest against the committee's slow progress.
"The hopes are too high," said Yang Semao, Wukan's deputy village chief who was elected in a feted and democratic election in March.
At the time, expectations were high in this village, built on a sheltered harbour fringed by mountains, that he and his fellow elected officials could recover farmland that had been seized by the previous local administration.
"We have already been trying our best," Yang said, explaining that complex land contracts and bureaucratic red-tape were hindering their recovery of the land.
Some local critics said the new 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 manipulated and out-manoeuvred by higher authorities within the party.
The committee posted letters into walls around Wukan this week, detailing its progress to date: the return of some 253 hectares of land and other "steady steps", including the resurfacing of roads and other social policy initiatives.
But by Friday, some of the letters had been ripped down by villagers.
"They were people's heroes," said Chen Jinchao, a villager still trying to get back two thirds of a hectare 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."
A man on a motorcycle veered near Wukan's respected village chief, Lin Zuluan, on Thursday and warned him that something big might soon happen, 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."
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 hectares 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," Zhang said.
With China on the cusp of a tumultuous leadership transition, any further unrest at Wukan could impact Guangdong province's high-flying leader, Wang Yang, who some hailed as a reformer for his defusing of the Wukan standoff by acceding to key village demands and averting a potentially bloody crackdown.
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, you can't control it," said a senior villager who asked not to be named.
Editing by Mark Bendeich