Pan Zhizhong never imagined he would one day fight for the position of Panguanying village chief in the city of Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, as part of a protest against the construction of a garbage incineration factory.
Nor did he imagine the chaos that would ensue.
On Thursday, as he entered the village's elementary school playground to take part in the elections, he found himself surrounded by around 1,000 supporters.
"I'm not worried that people will choose other candidates over me. I'm just concerned that there won't be a fair vote," Pan, the most popular candidate, told the Global Times.
His concerns proved justified during the election, which had been delayed for almost a year, when it was sabotaged by some of the candidates Thursday morning. Two disgruntled candidates led several men as they took away the ballot boxes, destroyed the votes and tore up lists of voters.
Most of the approximately 1,400 villagers participated in the election, however as yet, no victor has been announced.
A 20-minute drive away from the Beidaihe high-speed railway station, villagers can reach the capital within two hours. Villagers there are very proud of the pork from their pigs, which finds its way into nearby big cities including Beijing.
They are less proud, however, when it comes to the fact that they haven't been able to vote for their own village chief for over a year.
"We finally have the chance to vote, and I'll vote on behalf of my family," a villager surnamed Li told the Global Times, showing the blue document that makes him eligible to be a voter. "We are all confident in this vote."
The vote was originally scheduled in early spring but postponed to November after the former chief threatened to take his own life.
Rumors spread through the village that some candidates were trying to buy votes at 200 yuan ($32) each, while dozens of villagers including Li denied they were offered this deal.
Ru Xuejun, chief of the county people's congress, said locals should trust the county government's ability to ensure the fairness of the election, but he quickly disappeared after the election was interrupted.
Some 40 minutes after the election started at 8:30 am Thursday, a Global Times reporter witnessed a group of men kicking seven groups of voters out of the room, before taking away their ballot boxes.
Ma Yongsheng, identified to have been leading the men, is one of the seven candidates running for village chief. Ma shouted at those gathered in the playground that no one should dream of voting, then promptly got in his luxury car and drove away.
There were three police vehicles and dozens of plainclothes officers at the scene but no one spoke out at any stage. "If you don't serve the people, then you don't deserve to wear this uniform," angry villagers shouted at the township police chief.
A village fights back
Though some villagers said this was just another election, some said they believed the results would affect their future, and the destiny of their offspring. They were almost all supporters of Pan Zhizhong, whom they believed would benefit the village as a whole.
The entire affair began with a garbage incineration factory project, proposed by the Zhejiang Weiming Environment Protection Company, which was to be constructed in the area.
The factory, a joint venture between the city government and the company, with a total investment value of 220 million yuan, was meant to be completed in August 2011. However, it was halted in 2010, when 37 neighboring village committees protested.
The villagers of Panguanying were the most vocal opponents, as the plant was to be located mere kilometers from their homes.
Pan Zhizhong, Pan Zuofu and Pan Qingwen sued the provincial environmental protection bureau in 2011 after they found out that the public opinions in the factory's environmental assessment reports had been faked.
In May 2011, the bureau revoked the assessment that had been approved in 2009 and stipulated that a new report be completed before the project could be restarted.
Pan said he had been threatened by local officials and gangsters, who told him to drop the lawsuit. "They told me I could get whatever I want as long as we drop it. They promised 5 million yuan for each of us or several properties in the county. But this is about more than just money. It's about health, and the villagers who are counting on us."
The election became a channel to grumble about the village committee, as the factory was the only piece of evidence suggesting that village officials were taking land for their own gain.
"The former committee sold the land for only 43,000 yuan per mu (0.066 hectares). And if Pan Zhizhong was elected as new chief, he would have launched a thorough investigation, a prospect that scares local officials," said a 40-year-old villager, who referred himself as Lao Dong.
A nationwide problem
Panguanying is not the only village that has seen democracy derailed by vested interests.
Blogger Liu Xuefu exposed the fact that the election of the Lizigu village committee in Tianjin was also rigged in September.
Around 1,100 of 1,500 eligible voters in the village received bribes ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 yuan for their votes. They were also threatened that if they didn't vote for the specified candidate, they would be ostracized from the village or rendered ineligible for low-income welfare.
Zheng Fengtian, a professor with the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the Renmin University of China, said the biggest problem with grass-roots elections was the lack of methods to control how officials behave.
"The elected officials can decide important issues by themselves. Devoid of a monitoring mechanism, villagers are either indifferent to the election or busy taking civil action or petitioning," Zheng said.
Zheng said grass-roots elections are a good form of democracy but problems such as vote-buying or election manipulation are inevitable on the road to real democracy.
"There are still discussions on how to fully motivate villagers to participate in the elections of more than 600,000 villages nationwide," Zheng said, adding the fairness and transparency of elections should be ensured first.