A Chinese experiment in democracy meets fierce resistance
One villager's fight against corruption results in abuse and arrests.
When Fang Zhaojuan began organizing her neighbors here to impeach village leaders whom she suspected of corruption, she had no idea that the challenge would lead her first to the hospital and then to jail.Skip to next paragraph
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She was following the law, after all, and had launched legal petitions signed by a large majority of villagers. They believed they had been cheated of proper compensation when their village council had sold land for industrial development to the government of a nearby township.
Mrs. Fang, her family, and colleagues on a recall committee, however, found themselves plunged into a violent political drama. This, they say, has shown residents of the hamlet just how narrow the boundaries remain for their democratic rights. It has also, they add, hardened their resolve to enforce them.
Huiguan, a nondescript cluster of brick houses outside the port of Tianjin, is like tens of thousands of other Chinese villages, on the verge of being swallowed up by a fast-expanding city. Its farmland has all but disappeared under new factories, and under circumstances that Fang, a 43-year-old widow, found suspicious.
"She never expected this," says her sister, Fang Zhaohui, displaying photographs of Fang's bruised and bloody body taken in the hospital six weeks ago, after thugs had broken into her home and beaten her. "She never expected it would be so difficult and that the government would be so black."
"The township government is abusing its power," complains Li Guangde, a village activist who has so far avoided jail. "They are putting difficulties in our way and a lot of pressure on us. Perhaps some township officials were involved in the land sale and maybe there was corruption. I don't know."
Democratic hopes sputter
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."