A Chinese experiment in democracy meets fierce resistance
One villager's fight against corruption results in abuse and arrests.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
Roots of dispute
The drama here began last November, when Han Baocai, an 80-year-old farmer, filed a complaint with the Tianjin municipal government about the way in which the Huiguan village council had sold more than 50 acres of commonly held land to the higher-level township government of nearby Xiaozhan.
Villagers claim now that Xiaozhan paid 10,000 RMB per mu ($8,500 per acre), and sold it to developers for 800,000 RMB per mu ($685,000 per acre), alleging that the Xiaozhan and Huiguan authorities shared the profits at the villagers' expense.
Xiaozhan deputy Communist party secretary Liang Hongbin insists that the township paid a fair market price for agricultural land and that villagers were compensated according to the law.
Party Secretary Hao Shumin acknowledges the Xiaozhan government sold the land to developers for nearly twice what it paid for it, because the land's status had changed from village agricultural land to nationally owned industrial-use land, increasing its value. But he says the price was less than a tenth of what the villagers claim.
Huiguan villagers, however, believed they had been cheated, and in January they began the process specified by the village democracy law to recall their elected council.
From the start, they say, the Xiaozhan authorities put obstacles in their way, which villagers sometimes managed to overcome by appealing to officials at higher levels of the district government hierarchy.
But with a recall committee of five villagers duly elected in February to oversee the impeachment referendum, Xiaozhan stopped sending representatives to Huiguan village meetings. Villagers complain that since the law requires all village votes to be observed by an official from the local township, the local government could nullify all their decisions simply by refusing to witness them.
The conflict sharpened with a disagreement over who had the right to participate in the recall vote. Xiaozhan government officials said eligibility restrictions imposed by Huiguan's activists were illegal, which rendered the recall process null and void.
When appeals to the Tianjin authorities to resolve the dispute went unanswered, villagers say, they went ahead with preparations for the recall vote, deciding on procedures, publishing a voter list, distributing ballots, and inviting local and district officials to witness the vote on July 5.
Violence follows vote
The day before the vote, village council president Yuan Shiwan and his two colleagues abruptly resigned. The recall vote went ahead anyway, garnering 617 votes in favor and none against, well over the 50 percent of village residents required for the motion to pass.