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It Takes An angry Village to Revolt In Rural China

Posted by Author on October 12, 2007

Residents occupy seat of local government, fed up with officials selling off communal farmland

Bill Schiller, ASIA BUREAU, the Toronto Star, Canada, Oct 11, 2007-

XIANTANG VILLAGE, China–After years of simmering suspicion and mounting anger, the citizens of this sleepy south China village of 3,500 decided they weren’t going to take it anymore.

They were disturbed by what they saw: local politicians seemed to keep getting richer and everyone else kept falling behind while communally owned farmland kept disappearing beneath commercial developments.

Local citizens wanted to know how these land deals were done and where the proceeds were going.

They had a right to know.

Under law, farmland – unlike urban land – is owned by the community as a whole and regarded as the bedrock of a Chinese peasant’s means to make a living.

So on July 2, hundreds of concerned citizens laid siege to Xiantang Village Hall demanding to examine the books.

Today – 101 days later – the citizens are still here.

Occupy the government administration building

It may be unprecedented in modern China. Citizens not only accused their leaders of corruption, but drove them from office and continue to occupy the central administration building – a modern five-storey structure now festooned with fiery red banners.

It is an astonishing sight in an authoritarian state.

“SUPPORT GENERAL SECRETARY HU JINTAO’S SPIRIT OF ANTI-CORRUPTION,” a 20-metre long banner shouts, invoking the Chinese president’s name. “BUILD A HARMONIOUS SOCIETY TOGETHER. FIGHT TO THE END THE CORRUPT OFFICIALS WHO VIOLATE THE PEOPLE’S BENEFITS.”

Inside the building a number of citizens have set up basic housekeeping, bringing with them bedding, small stoves and cooking utensils. Others occupy the building only during the day.

One recent afternoon there were about 200 people inside the hall.

A few are in their early 20s. But many are middle-aged and greying, and some are even in their late 80s.

All want a thorough examination of the village committee’s dealings and, if wrongdoing is found, they want prosecutions.

In the large and comfortable council chambers, citizens have erected a painting of former leader Mao Zedong.

“Mao granted us this land,” citizen Lai Shunyou explains solemnly, seated in one of the upholstered chairs. “And they (the former village committee) sold this land to developers behind our back!”

Lai Jiawen, in his mid-40s, speaks with urgency. “If we don’t stand up to them now, there won’t be a single piece of land left. We make a living from that land. But now – we have almost nothing.”

Nearby, a few of the elderly take seats and lean in, listening intently.

“These old people cry almost every day,” says a woman, Li Jianrong.

Corruption involving local government officials and land deals is widespread in China.

The powerful central government has said so openly.

Last month a senior official in the Ministry of Land and Resources announced a nationwide campaign to rein in such corruption.

Gan Zangchun criticized local governments that have “arbitrarily expanded development areas in violation of the master plan,” saying the central government is prepared to act. Given that commitment, citizens here can’t understand why no government, at any level, has come to their aid.

Even the police have stood back.

Accounting books found

As recently as Sept. 21, citizens say, two men associated with the former village committee arrived at council offices and began loading boxes into a minivan preparing to carry them away.

Locals demanded to know what was inside the boxes. When the men said they were “mooncakes” – a traditional Chinese pastry enjoyed during the mid-autumn festival – close to 1,000 citizens blocked the vehicle. They then ripped open the boxes and discovered years of village accounting ledgers inside.

Until then, the villagers had been unable to locate the accounting books.

The records revealed details concerning land trades and factory rents and management fees about which the villagers had known nothing.

“There were millions in revenues – which was news to the villagers,” said a short but detailed summary entitled “A Desperate Plea from Xiantang Villagers” compiled by citizens and provided to the Toronto Star.

Citizens called police to report an attempted theft of the accounting books but police said the incident was beyond their jurisdiction.

“The people here were outraged,” says Lai Shunyou.

Appeals ignored by higher levels

Over the past 100 days, the citizens have sent delegations to ever higher levels of government, appealing for an investigation. They have gone to Longjiang Town, to Shunde District, to Foshan City, to the province of Guangdong and even to the central government’s national petitioning office, which hears appeals from citizens in the distant provinces who believe they have been ill-treated by local governments.

None of these offices have offered satisfaction.

A so-called investigation by a team from the town was dismissed by locals as a whitewash.

They point out that no villagers were allowed to participate.

Medias blocked

Citizens also complain that news about the events in Xiantang is being blocked.

“No one can hear of the villagers’ suffering. Reporters are forbidden to report on it,” the citizen’s letter says.

None of mainland China’s newspapers, which are all state-owned or state-controlled, have reported on the villagers’ protest.

Only a single paper in Hong Kong, The Sun, filed a short story in late September.

Lives threated

Meanwhile, without government assistance and without media coverage, citizens say they have now become targets of intimidation and revenge attacks believed to originate from the family and supporters of the politicians driven from power.

They say recent “terrorist incidents” have included a villager being burned out of his home; the assault of a woman in her 60s in front of others at the Village Hall; the pouring of red oil at the front doors of grocery stores and barber shops of those participating in the occupation; and the locking of a citizen’s front door with a towel soaked in gasoline.

Villagers believe their lives and safety are under threat.

Still, they continue to guard the village accounts, hopeful that “wise, higher officials” will grant them justice and finally order a thorough investigation.

Meanwhile, an official reached at Longjiang Town this week said he couldn’t comment on events at Xiantang Village and referred calls to Shunde’s press office. Repeated calls there went unanswered.

And officials at Guangdong province press office declined to respond to questions faxed to them at their request.

[Note] Section title added by Chinaview

Original report from the Toronto Star

One Response to “It Takes An angry Village to Revolt In Rural China”

  1. […] ‘After years of simmering suspicion and mounting anger, the citizens of this sleepy south China village of 3,500 decided they weren’t going to take it anymore.It Takes An angry Village to Revolt In Rural China […]

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