Residents of a restive village in southern China held a symbolic election on Wednesday, a small step towards grassroots rights in a centre that is now a benchmark of rural defiance against land grabs and corruption that blight villages nationwide.

The rebellion last year against abuse of power and the illegal sale of hundreds of hectares of farmland in coastal Wukan have become a benchmark of rural defiance against land grabs and corruption that blight villages nation-wide.

More than 6,000 villagers streamed into a school amid brilliant sunshine. The open-air election was held in a courtyard before a red election banner as patriotic songs blared from speakers.

At the end of polling, villagers burned unused ballot papers and clapped in jubilation at a largely orderly and trouble-free poll with turnout well over 80 percent.

This far exceeded our expectations, said Yang Semao, a village elder who helped officiate. It shows our passion for democracy.

Earlier, Xue Jianwan, daughter of village protest organiser Xue Jinbo, who died in police custody last year sparking further protests, visited her father's memorial in the village square before voting. His body, which family members said bore marks of torture, has yet to be returned by authorities.

This is something my father would have hoped for, she said, bursting into tears after casting her ballot. We just want to do our best to fulfil his final wishes.

The poll will select an independent election committee to oversee upcoming ballots, including one for the village committee on March 1.

With China's top leadership jockeying for power ahead of a succession in the autumn that will usher in a new generation of leaders, the smooth handling of the Wukan unrest has been paramount for Guangdong's Communist Party boss Wang Yang, one of the country's most prominent officials.

Several dozen police in green uniforms and caps guarded the entrance of the school, with several police vans nearby.

Flanked by sea and mountains in a remote pocket of the economic powerhouse of Guangdong province, villagers had looked forward to Wednesday's ballot after suffering under the previous Communist party village secretary, toppled in last year's turmoil after decades in the post.

For 40 years we've never had a proper election, said a bouffant-haired villager named Chen Junchao ahead of the election of the 11 election committee members by around 7300 eligible voters.

I've never seen these papers before, said Chen, clutching a white ballot registration slip stamped with a red ink government seal. I was crying when I saw this.

Not all were optimistic. One young woman with a baby swaddled against her said she was concerned a power struggle was under way for the March 1 village committee seats that could see some of the old corrupt guard regain influence.

I'm a little worried for the future, she said, declining to give her name.

A few villagers scuffled angrily with election officials, saying they were issued no voter registration slips and refused permission to vote. Otherwise, polling appeared smooth, though underlying bitterness and suspicion remained.

UNREST LED TO ELECTORAL STEPS

Village-level elections are common, if still stage-managed by the Communist Party. The situation in Wukan, however, is unique in that its fledgling electoral steps were wrought from the jaws of unrest.

After rioting in September, residents expelled the old village guard and barricaded themselves in for a 10-day stand-off in December.

The move forced concessions from Wang's provincial government, which acknowledged there had been mistakes at the local level and granted the village a chance to wipe the slate clean and elect true people's representatives.

The Communist Party, which maintains single-party authority across the government, from Beijing to the province, city, county and township, wields absolute control, but began experimenting with grassroots democracy in the 1980s under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

The approach to Wukan contrasts sharply with the response to recent unrest among ethnic Tibetans, who have been met with truncheons and bullets that killed several protesters in Sichuan province. The success of his approach could be pivotal for Wang's prospects to advance to the top echelons of power at the Communist Party's 18th Congress later this year.

While grassroots level elections are common, so are efforts to influence the outcome from above.

Before, if someone wanted to get elected, they'd spend 30,000 yuan ($4,700). Today, they spend 10 times that. This is really indicating the competitiveness going on, said Baogang He, chair of international studies at Deakin University in Australia and author of The Democratization of China.

With Wukan, he said: Everyone is watching, so this time it's probably unlikely. But naturally it happens. Maybe they will hold dinners, then hand out cigarette packs.

Few expect the ripples of Wukan's experiment with more democracy to spread far.

I think if higher ups don't intervene and they reach a truly fair election, then we are hopeful about the situation in Wukan, said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute in Beijing. But overall, we are not optimistic because top-down intervention is common.

(Additional reporting by Sisi Tang in Hong Kong, Editing by Brian Rhoads and Ron Popeski)