By John Ruwitch and James Pomfret
XIAOSHAN/WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Hua Youjuan is an unlikely Chinese official.
Free-spirited but driven, she left her village at age 17, got a degree in marketing, and opened a string of businesses in nearby cities in eastern China before settling in the coastal boomtown of Ningbo, 160 km (100 miles) from home.
She never looked back - until she got a phone call two years ago that set off a chain of events that would turn her into an anti-corruption campaigner, then the elected head of her village and, finally, into a disillusioned witness to the ruling Communist Party's attempts at limited grassroots democracy.
Her story, as she tells it, ends with a party unwilling to yield power and with her campaign losing momentum - a tale that reveals one of the most challenging riddles facing China's incoming new leadership team: how can the party shore up its waning legitimacy without loosening its grip on power?
So far, an answer has been elusive.
Critics say political reform stalled as the current leadership focused on delivering economic growth. Rumors have circulated ahead of the once-in-a-decade transition that leader-to-be Xi Jinping and his colleagues may be willing to push through much needed reforms - but it is far from clear.
Large-scale protests have increased in China, reflecting anger over corruption and the lack of government accountability and transparency - the kind of unrest that experiments in grassroots democracy, like the one Hua Youjuan participated in, were meant to help short-circuit.
Instead, Hua said democracy in her home village of Huangshan, in eastern Zhejiang province, was never allowed to fully succeed, thwarted by senior party officials who she accused of resisting her campaign to root out corruption.
"If real reform comes, then I don't mind staying where I came from, but if things continue like this I just don't see hope," she told Reuters.
Hua's frustrations are shared in other villages that have been to the ballot box, including China's most famous testing ground for greater democracy, the southern fishing village of Wukan where a violent standoff over government land seizures led last year to the sacking of local leaders and elections.
On the first anniversary of the Wukan uprising in September, more than 100 villagers rallied outside Wukan's party offices to protest against what they saw as slow progress by their newly elected village committee to return seized land. Some critics say the committee was outmaneuvered by higher party officials.
China has experimented with limited democracy since the 1980s, holding nationwide village chief elections and giving people a voice in low-level government budgeting in some locales.
But China experts say most of these efforts have fizzled because of opposition from within the Communist Party, and that mass protests are still frequent. Some experts such as Sun Liping of Tsinghua University estimate there could have been 180,000 mass protests and riots in China in 2010.
"Most people I know and meet know change is going to happen, but I don't think anybody knows what kind of change and I don't think anybody really knows how to initiate change," said Tony Saich, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
"You can only push a ball down the road so long before it runs out of control."
IMPEACH THE LEADER
In October 2010, the ball ran out of control in Huangshan village, a suburban warren of houses and small factories on the south side of the city of Hangzhou.
Convinced their local party boss was getting rich through corrupt means, residents launched a sit-in to block a construction project he was involved in.
Hua, living in Ningbo, did not even know it was happening, but her father joined the movement, collecting donations from the village's 6,000 residents to keep the protest going.
A friend of Hua's with close ties to the local government called her and asked her to return to Huangshan to plead with her dad to quit. She did so in early November, but her father refused and the movement gained momentum.
"He said, 'Telling me to stop is worse than telling me to go and die at this point'," she recounted.
Police increased the pressure, summoning Hua and warning that her father could get into trouble if he did not stop.
That turned out to be the wrong tack with the 36-year-old who has a soft smile but a hard head.
She demanded to know what law his actions violated, and then left uncowed. She then became part of the villagers' movement, suggesting they step up their protest by trying to impeach the party chief from his role as head of the village economic cooperative. They began collecting signatures.
On November 10 officials from the district that oversees Huangshan village came to negotiate, but the villagers blocked their exit for several hours. Police were called to get them out, Hua said.
The next day, villagers, officials and police scuffled over the village financial books, which were to be collected by investigators for a probe into the party chief. Hua was summoned by police for questioning. Thousands of villagers gathered outside the police station to demand her release, Hua said.
She was finally freed around midday the next day and given a hero's welcome replete with flowers. "From that day the villagers started to know who I was," she said.
By the end of November, the tension seemed to have peaked. The party chief stepped down and was subsequently put under house arrest, according to Hua.
OPEN NOMINATION, CLOSED SELECTION
With the new year came hope as the wheels of village democracy began to turn.
First, the party selected leaders for the village party branch, a body that technically parallels the village committee but in reality holds more power, through a new and relatively open mechanism. Villagers were allowed to nominate candidates, and the party would then pick a leader from among the top five.
The process, called "open nomination, direct election", was part of the party's latest nationwide attempt to infuse public affairs with a degree of accountability.
Party leaders have directly dismissed the possibility of China adopting "Western-style", multi-party democracy, but the concept of "intra-party democracy" - more openness and competition behind the red wall of the 80 million-strong party - has gained traction and there appears to be consensus behind it.
Li Yuanchao, who is expected to join China's top leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress in November, championed "open nomination, direct election" when he ran Jiangsu province from 2002-2007.
China watchers say the concept of intra-party democracy is likely to get a boost at next month's congress - where China's new leadership team will be unveiled - but critics say this misses the point.
While village elections are enshrined legally in China, fair votes free of behind-the-scenes meddling are relatively rare.
In Huangshan, Hua was elected village chief in April 2011 despite eligibility rules she said were an attempt to prevent rebellious villagers from standing.
The old party and village bosses were out, but Hua soon found she could not work with the new party chief, who outranked her in China's hierarchy of officials, and who she said was favored by party officials at higher levels.
In July, the villagers started to organize again to petition the Hangzhou government and party officials called Hua to step in. Instead, she turned off her phone and ignored them.
The response was swift. Thirteen people were arrested, 10 of whom, including Hua's father and brother, were brought up on criminal charges for previous actions, she said.
Multiple phone calls to the party office of Wenyan township, one level above Huangshan, to seek comment for this article went unanswered. The Xiaoshan district party office, above Wenyan, had no immediate comment on the situation in Huangshan when contacted by phone.
A day after Lunar New Year this year, Hua went to the village of Wukan in southern Guangdong province where an uprising against illegal land sales had resulted in concessions being granted by the province's high-flying leader, Wang Yang.
She said she went on a whim, feeling lonely with her brother and father still in detention with no court date yet set, and hoped to learn something from the Wukan experience.
For Hua and others, Wukan symbolized the possibility of rural activism in China and opened a path toward more democratic, equitable and transparent village governance.
In Wukan, decades of strong-arm rule by its former village party secretary, Xue Chang, had resulted in widespread abuses of power. Villagers felt powerless, unable to choose their own village chief or village committee representatives.
In September last year, these tensions boiled over into a protest movement which led to village elections in March.
Villagers flocked to vote. The poll also drew plaudits for using secret ballot boxes and open nominations and it resulted in the new village committee being largely comprised of former protest leaders.
But even in Wukan the new officials have had a tough time achieving their goals - partly, some say, for the same reason Hua is frustrated: higher-ranking party officials are opposed.
Zhuang Liehong, a core village committee member and advocate of improved grassroots democracy and governance, quit recently in frustration at the limited progress in negotiating the return of seized land from uncooperative higher authorities.
"If after the 18th party congress there isn't further progress in getting back our land, more will quit," said Zhang Jiancheng, another democratically elected member of the new Wukan village administration.
Pressure is building around China, said Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in California.
"That's a political reality we cannot ignore," he said, adding China's new leaders must push through reforms or pay a high price.
"If they don't push, where they end up is lots and lots of Wukans, lots and lots of Shifangs and Qidongs," he said, citing other places where large violent protests have erupted recently.
Hua, who Reuters first met in Wukan, said she was worried things in her village could back-slide if she did not run again when her term ends in 2014.
"If I can do this and feel like there are results then it's something I want to do," she said. "But if, for instance, another term is going to be like this, without being able to change anything, then I don't want to do it."
(This story has been refiled to correct dateline to Xiaoshan, from Xiangshan)
(Editing by Mark Bendeich and Dean Yates)