A Chinese village takes a stand against graft

Locals in the village of Xiantang have occupied their village hall for the past 14 weeks to protest what they say is official graft.

On the face of it, the giant red banner strung across the entrance to the village hall here, urging support for Beijing's campaign against official corruption, seems unexceptional.

In fact, it is the rallying point for what may be the longest sustained act of defiance against Communist Party authorities in recent Chinese history. It is also emblematic of the enormous difficulties that the Chinese government faces in retaining legitimacy in ordinary people's eyes.

The slogan is not the work of the mayor of this quiet southern village of around 3,500 souls, nor any of his aides. Rather, it was daubed by angry residents who have been occupying the village hall for more than three months in protest against local leaders who they say have stolen millions of dollars in public funds.

The occupiers are not armed insurrectionists. They are mostly old people who complain that the village committee, led by the local secretary of the Communist Party, took over the land they had farmed, leased or sold it to developers, and kept the money for themselves.

"It was our land. It was sold, but we did not get any money," says Lai Niu, who ekes out a living selling chicken. "Government officials and businessmen work together and ignore us villagers."

That is a common complaint in the Chinese countryside, and protests against land grabs by local officials erupt on a regular basis. The Ministry of Public Security reported 17,900 "mass incidents" in the first nine months of 2006. They are almost always snuffed out within a day or so. Corruption is a top priority for the central government, President Hu Jintao reiterated during the 17th Party Congress this week.

Xiantang's angry villagers took control of the village council's opulent five-story offices on July 1, after officials had refused to open their accounting books. They have been there ever since, mounting a 24-hour guard over a pile of cardboard cartons they believe contain the accounts that will prove their allegations.

They threaten to stay there until regional authorities send auditors to check the books, and their demands have also taken on a political tone. "We want to elect a good village leader" to replace the current head of the council and Communist Party Secretary Lai Zhenchang, who was appointed by the government, says one of the protesters, Lai Jiawen.

Meanwhile, villagers take turns sleeping on thin mattresses laid out on chairs in the village hall canteen, cooking tureen-fuls of communal food on fires they light in the building's grand entranceway, and milling around the marble-floored foyer amid banners and posters they have put up along with an old portrait of Mao Zedong.

"He fought and won for the whole country," explains one villager. "He gave us our land."

So far the police have made no move to evict the protesters, whose numbers vary from a few dozen to 200 or so, depending on the day. About 20 municipal employees continue to sit at their desks, trying to ignore the disorder around them.

The villagers' anger has been rising to the boiling point for a long time. Twenty-five years ago, when Xiantang was a remote village of fishponds, silkworm mulberry trees, and vegetable plots, the village council took over management of residents' land and gave each peasant family a share in the enterprise worth a monthly average of 60 yuan (now the equivalent of $8.00) per member.

"It was not a lot but we understood," said one villager who asked not to be identified. In the intervening decades, however, the giant city of Guangzhou, the capital of booming Guangdong Province, spread its suburbs to envelop the village. Land values have soared, and the village council has leased or sold most of Xiantang's land to factory and business owners, but the former peasants say they still receive the same compensation as they did 24 years ago.

"After so many years it is not fair and not normal," complains the villager.

The protesters want to know where the money – as much as $1 million a year – has gone, and they have their suspicions.

"All the officials here are getting rich," charges Lai Jiawen. "They have built beautiful homes and they all have cars. Four of them have three cars each."

Residents also suspect that village council members skimmed money from the contract to build the new village hall, an unusually lavish marble and glass edifice decorated with mock-crystal chandeliers that looks quite out of place in this low-rise village.

Widespread and rising allegations of corruption among Communist officials are a serious challenge to the party's rule, top leaders have warned. During the first five months of 2007, prosecutors investigated 12,622 corruption cases, according to the Supreme People's Procuratorate. That was up 2.4 percent from the same period in 2006.

In his opening address to the 17th Party Congress in Beijing last Monday, President Hu was blunt.

"Resolutely punishing and effectively preventing corruption bears on the popular support for the Party and on its very survival," he warned. "We must resolutely stop unhealthy practices that hurt public interests, and take effective measures to deal with matters that cause strong public resentment."

Xiantang's residents, however, say that their efforts to draw official attention to their complaints have borne no fruit. They say they were turned away from the gates of the municipal offices in nearby Foshan city and of the Guangdong provincial government, and that a weeklong picket of the Longjian town government was broken up by police.

A spokeswoman for the district of Shunde, under whose rule Xiantang falls, identifying herself only as Ms. Zhang, says, "The government is trying its best to solve the problem, but it takes time to deal with it." Xiantang's party secretary and village council head Lai Zhenchang refused to answer questions.

It is unclear why the police have taken no steps yet to evict the protesters illegally occupying Xiantang's municipal offices. A municipal employee who gave his name only as Chen explains, "This is the decision of a higher-level department. I just do what my leaders tell me to do."

Officials may be concerned that a raid on the village hall, which protesters say they would resist, might only spread popular discontent. "The local government is paying a lot of attention to social stability," says Ms. Zhang.

Though the villagers say they are afraid of the consequences of their unusually direct action, they insist they had been left no choice. "This village hall is ours; we haven't broken the law," says Lai Niu. "We organized ourselves and we have complained, but now we don't know where to make our voices heard."

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