Li Fuzeng was busy making pancakes, he recalled, when an acquaintance stopped by his little snack shop on the morning of May 19 and unexpectedly handed him the equivalent of $50.
The money was a significant sum in the economy of this farming village in eastern China, and Li knew something would be expected in exchange. He was right. The quid pro quo, Li recounted later, was his and his family's votes in village elections the next day.
"My friend said, 'Vote like this,' " Li said, "and he handed me a list of candidates."
Li's account of what happened that morning has become part of a bitter struggle between the local Communist Party apparatus and a group of discontented farmers who want new leadership for their village. The vote-buying at Li's pancake stand, the farmers allege, was but one episode in a campaign during which thousands of dollars were spent to make sure that people in tune with party leaders would be elected to the seven-member council.
The uproar in Dangxi, a village of 3,200 residents on the fringes of the city of Jinan, about 200 miles south of Beijing, is emblematic of the Communist Party's difficulty in retaining support among peasants as China makes economic development its main mission, often at the price of farmland. The conflict also dramatizes the limits on China's village elections, which the government depicts as grass-roots democracy but over which local Communist Party branches and traditional leaders often retain control.
Elections have been held in a growing number of China's 700,000 villages since the experiment began in 1987, and Dangxi joined the trend. Over the last decade, the village has elected several councils. But farmers here described an unusual kind of democracy. Voting, they said, was organized by the Communist Party secretary, Jin Yansi, and one of his followers carried the ballot box from home to home, handing villagers ballots to deposit in the slot.
Assured of a compliant village council, said Zhang Tingfu, leader of the dissident farmers, Jin helped arrange development deals that reduced Dangxi's cultivated land from more than 2,000 acres to around 400 as new buildings rose where crops once grew. More than 100 farming families lost their land during the 1990s, Zhang said, and in return received only $100 each in compensation. In place of their fields, he said, a stone quarry and a private high school were developed.
Zhang, 58, who plants corn and wheat on his own 1.2 acres, said he and a group of other farmers went to the quarry in the summer of 2000 and pulled down the walls to protest the loss of farmland. At the same time, Zhang said, he started a campaign to demand that village elections be organized by secret ballot so new leaders could be chosen who would, he hoped, close the quarry and return the fields to farmers who used to work them.
"We wanted to protect the land and they wanted to develop it," said Zhang, a peasant with short gray hair and a determined mien. "That's why Jin and his supporters did not want us in power."
Jin and his family had run the village for years. His cousin was party secretary for more than a decade, with Jin his deputy. Jin took over in 1996 after his cousin died, Zhang said, and was not used to any challenges to his authority.
In response to the agitation, however, the voting was moved to a meeting hall for elections in April 2002. County authorities said that this time the balloting would be secret, as required by law. But Zhang said he and other villagers found the ballot boxes half full before anyone had voted. In protest, most villagers boycotted the proceedings and the elections had to be declared invalid, he said.
"We have two groups in our village, one for Zhang and one for Jin," explained Cui Huanmei, 60, a farmer's wife whose brick home stands on a narrow lane full of fat black cows lounging in the dust.
Jin was replaced as party secretary in 2002 -- villagers were unsure why -- and a new election was organized the following March, Zhang said, with secret ballots and supervision by an elected committee. Zhang won with 1,514 votes out of 1,600 ballots and became head of the village council for a three-year term.
"They could not stop it," Zhang said. "Everyone knows the power of democracy."
Full of zeal, Zhang decided that his first step as village head would be to demand that the government of surrounding Dang Jiazheng county, which owned the quarry, return the land to the farmers who used to work it. His second step, he recalled, was to ask county officials for the village account books; villagers, he said, wanted an explanation for Jin's large green home and big black car.
For more than a year, he said, he pushed -- but got nowhere. The quarry was shut down, but the farmers did not get their land back, and the new village council never saw the account books. "Even now, we don't know where our account book is," Zhang said in an interview.
Two lawsuits were brought against the county; both were thrown out of court.
Then county officials announced that new elections would have to be held after less than two years. The reason for advancing the schedule, they said, was to synchronize voting among villages surrounding Jinan. Zhang and his followers believed, however, that the reason was to kick them out of power and prevent them from looking into the village accounts.
The new voting was held last December. But as villagers filed in to cast ballots at a local primary school, someone burst in and stole a ballot box. As a result, county authorities again were forced to invalidate the election.
Starting anew, Dangxi voted for yet another election organizing committee in April. As he had before, Zhang received the most votes, becoming head of the committee. He prepared to set up another election that he expected to win.
But as preparations were underway, Zhang said, he got reports that people were receiving money in return for pledging to vote against him. Several villagers said the going rate was $12 per vote. A number of people, including Li, the 42-year-old pancake seller, gave Zhang signed statements acknowledging they had accepted money in return for voting as they were told.
Armed with their testimony in a file folder, Zhang petitioned county authorities to put off the election until the allegations were investigated. But they ordered the voting to go ahead.
On May 20, when the election was held, Zhang was the lowest-ranking vote-getter, barely retaining a seat on the council and losing his post as village leader. The winner was Fa Zhonglei, a Communist Party member who worked at the quarry and whom many villagers regard as an associate of Jin and his successor, Li Lianzeng.
A month later, Zhang still refuses to hand over the village seal, a traditional symbol of power, and he has written an open letter to Civil Affairs Minister Li Xueju in Beijing demanding an investigation.
The minister has not responded. But Zhang said he was heartened by an article in the ministry's official newspaper headlined: "The vote-buying was obvious in Dangxi." Meanwhile, he has continued to rally his followers against the new council.
Jin, who villagers said still exercises quiet influence but keeps a low profile, could not be located for comment. Fa, the new village head, said in a telephone interview that Zhang and his supporters invented the vote-buying charges to explain their loss. Their accusations of corruption are also groundless, he said, and Jin was only trying to bring economic progress to Dangxi as Jinan sprawled into suburban land.
But Fa Jinming, 79, the patriarch of a large family in Dangxi that backs Zhang, said he got a call from Fa Zhonglei on June 5 seeking his family's cooperation with the new administration. In the conversation, the elderly farmer said with a smile, the new village head said he planned to model his tenure on Zhang's.