Chinese law prescribes direct democratic elections for village councils, and provides for recalls if a majority of villagers lose faith in their leaders. "But that is only the law," cautions Yawei Liu, head of the China Program at Atlanta's Carter Center, which has worked with the Chinese authorities to strengthen village self-rule.
"Once you move into the real world it is very difficult to enforce," he adds.
Ten years ago, when China's definitive law on village elections came into effect, many officials and some foreign scholars touted it as heralding broader democracy nationwide.
Today, such hopes are sputtering. Fang's fate illustrates one key weakness of the experiment: It is very hard for grass-roots democracy to thrive in a vacuum where superior levels of government are undemocratic.
"Unless there are changes higher up, this kind of democracy cannot be sustained," fears Dr. Liu.
"At any point in the process the authoritarian system can come into play" to frustrate villagers' democratic aims, says Kevin O'Brien, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied village governance in China for years. "This story is an example of bottom-up democracy being swamped by undemocratic people who are used to giving orders."
On the other hand, Dr. Liu points out, "the beatings and the jailings are a reflection ... that the villagers are so keenly aware of their rights there is nothing else the government can do."
Recent events in Huiguan show that "when people know they have been given some political rights, they are going to take advantage of this," adds Li Lianjiang, a village elections expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is a positive sign of democratic growth."