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.
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."
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."
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.
Despite the resignation and the vote, however, villagers said a crowd of them found Mr. Yuan and his colleagues still occupying the council offices on July 8. What happened next is unclear: Yuan claims to have been manhandled, knocked to the ground, and beaten; villagers at the scene say he was not touched.
Three days later, however, seven people including two of Yuan's sons showed up at Fang's house and beat her savagely, according to eyewitnesses who also photographed her injuries after an ambulance had taken her to hospital. One man was detained but later released, and nobody has yet been charged with the assault.
The next day Fang's son and a friend of his were arrested in connection with the alleged attack on Yuan. They were released two weeks later, and no formal charge was filed. A district court has, unusually, accepted their lawsuit against the police for wrongful arrest.
The Olympics factor
On Aug. 13, Fang and her fellow recall committee members mailed complaints about their treatment to a variety of offices, including the Supreme Court Anti-Corruption Office and the Tianjin prosecutor. But they abstained from visiting petition offices because "the government did not want anything to disturb the social order during the Olympics; they wanted a party spirit," explains Mr. Li.
The day after the Olympics closed, however, Fang and other villagers approached district officials to press their case. On their return to Fang's home, police arrested her; three other members of the recall committee; Han Baocai, the 80-year-old who had first raised the issue in contention; and one other villager, said Li, who was detained with them but released a few hours later.
The six others, and another member of the recall committee arrested later, remain in detention. They are being held on suspicion of "disturbing the social order," according to plainclothes police officer Zhang Congying, but neither Mr. Zhang nor the Xiaozhan police chief, Wang Jinting, would say what they had done to incur such suspicion.
Xiaozhan Deputy Communist Party Secretary Liang insists that Fang and her colleagues "were not arrested because of their recall effort. Nobody would be arrested for seeking to recall officials according to the law."
Consequences of direct democracy
Fang's sister, however, sees their detention as a warning to others. "If they arrest Fang Zhaojuan, other people won't dare cause any more trouble," she says. "They do it to suppress ordinary people."
A "barefoot lawyer," who is advising Huiguan's recall committee, but who asked not to be identified since he has already been jailed once for "counterrevolutionary activities," agrees.
"This case is a natural result of the social environment," he argues. "When ordinary people try to use their democratic rights, they will definitely suffer the consequences. The phenomenon of having a law supporting people's rights that they cannot actually enjoy is too common in our country."
The villagers say they are not giving up, however. "We want a fair solution to all the problems ... and a clear response to our vote," says Li. "We insist on it."