Four elected village officials in eastern China's Shandong province were arrested and formally charged with "attacking" the local government because they challenged a corrupt Communist Party boss, a human rights group and a relative of one of the men said today.

The move is an indication of the growing tensions between some of China's more than half a million elected village chiefs and their appointed superiors. The incident also points to the pervasiveness of corruption and abuse of power in the countryside, where more than 80 percent of China's 1.3 billion people live.

If convicted, the four men from Yuezhuang village, who were indicted Wednesday, could face jail terms of three to seven years, according to Frank Lu Siqing, founder of the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

China's government often touts village elections as an example of its gradual move toward more democracy. China's 1 million villages are now governed by both elected officials, and those appointed by the Communist Party.

Village chief Zhang Mingjun and his three deputies were elected on Sept. 25, defeating the official candidates with a write-in effort.

Zhang and the other men earlier had led a group of 500 villagers to the Lin Qu county government seat to appeal for relief from their corrupt village Communist Party boss, who has contracted more than half of the village farmland to 200 friends and relatives.

After being rebuffed by the county officials, the villagers decided to enter the election. But two weeks after Zhang and the three other men won, they were arrested by local police and charged with leading a "concentrated attack on government offices" because, according to Lu, that was the only way they could "legally" nullify the results of the election.