In Chinese Uprisings, Peasants Find New Allies
Protesters Gain Help of Veteran Activists

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 26, 2005

GUANGZHOU, China -- By the time Lu Banglie drove toward the village of Taishi that night, his photograph had already been distributed to local police stations. So when camouflage-clad men guarding the village entrance stopped his taxi and peered inside, Lu recalled, they immediately shouted, "It's him! It's him!" and yanked him out by the hair.

After dragging him to the side of the street, the guards set on Lu, kicking him and punching him until he passed out, according to Lu and his companions. When Lu regained consciousness more than two hours later, he said, his body was bruised and hurting, his clothing smelled of urine, he was vomiting repeatedly, his vision was blurred and his memory had gone fuzzy.

What happened to Lu, a slight, 34-year-old peasant activist, was perhaps the most brutal chapter in a four-month struggle over the village leadership. But it was far from the only violence. Residents trying to use electoral law and mass protests to overturn their allegedly corrupt village head and Communist Party secretary clashed repeatedly with riot police in the onetime farming community, long since transformed by China's economic boom into an industrial suburb on the southeastern fringe of Guangzhou.

In the process, Taishi has become a milestone in the peasant uprisings that increasingly are breaking out around China, generating open concern in President Hu Jintao's government and in the Communist Party. In Taishi's rebellion, outraged local farmers for the first time received help from outside political activists and Beijing-based intellectuals whose politics were shaped in part by the 1989 democracy movement.

The cooperation between local peasant protesters and veteran activists pursuing a national political agenda -- pushing China toward democracy -- was hailed by Chinese and foreign civil rights advocates as a significant advance. By helping peasants learn from others, they saw a promise of generating more democracy in China's village elections. And by aggressively promoting coverage in Chinese and foreign media through multiple Web postings and broadcasts of cell phone text messages, they thought they had found a way to pressure the authorities. Liu Xiaobo, a well known Beijing activist and writer, said on an overseas-based Web site popular with dissidents, "Civil elites working together with grass-roots villagers created a new method to safeguard villagers' human rights." He added, "Domestic intellectuals and Internet users have provided tremendous support and also brought massive attention among Western media."

But for the government and Communist Party, the coming together of disgruntled peasants and political activists in Taishi caused alarm. It raised the specter of a nascent national leadership and coordination for what so far has been an unconnected series of violent outbursts, usually over local economic issues, each of which has had homegrown leaders without broader ambitions.

"The Chinese Communist Party, at the beginning, organized workers and farmers and used them to rise to power, but now we represent the workers and farmers, and the party is very afraid of us," said Zhao Xin, a student leader in 1989 and now executive director of the Empowerment and Rights Institute, which advised Taishi farmers.

The official fears were not without foundation. Within weeks, the protests in Taishi began to spread. Two nearby villages erupted with similar demonstrations against confiscation of their fields. In one of them, Sanshan, violent confrontations broke out between peasants and police -- and some of the same activists advised Sanshan's peasants behind the scenes.

The authorities in charge of Taishi cracked down hard. They sent in riot police to break up protests. They branded the activists as "plotters" and threw several of them in jail on charges of inciting social disorder. Lu was detained for a day even before the beating. The offices of some were rifled, they said, and their houses were put under surveillance. Some went into hiding.

Most of all, the authorities made sure that Taishi remained under the leadership of Chen Jingshen, the elected village chief and, simultaneously, the unelected Communist Party secretary. He was the target of the angry peasants, who charged that he bribed his way to victory in last April's vote and siphoned off thousands of dollars in village funds over the last several years.

Connecting With Peasants

Construction cranes and factories have increasingly encroached on the banana plots and rice paddies that for centuries had underpinned the economy of the village of Taishi and the surrounding district. The metropolis of Guangzhou, capital of the Pearl River Delta's booming manufacturing region, has swallowed up the rural surroundings.

Taishi, with just over 2,000 residents, benefited from the development along with the rest of southeastern China. The village administration took in $600,000 last year, triple its income of 2001. Each adult received about $100 in dividends from communal village land given over to factories assembling jewelry, clothing, shoes and electronic components.

But two villagers, Feng Qiusheng and Liang Shusheng, began asking last May why the annual payments were not higher and why the village was deeply in debt. They demanded that Chen, the party secretary who had just taken over as village chief, open the accounts. Feng, 26, an accountant, wanted to go over the books himself. But Chen rejected that idea, along with the rest of their questions.

In July, a new face showed up in Guangzhou, the huge nearby metropolis. He was Yang Maodong, 39, a former philosophy professor and an experienced activist. Yang, a stocky, disheveled intellectual who spoke with rapid-fire intensity and wore the Chinese academic's traditional black-plastic-framed glasses, was a contributor to dissident Web sites and had written a book on the collapse of the Soviet Union. His political beliefs harked back to the democracy spirit of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. A natural organizer and unabashed nationalist, he had last been detained in April for his role in promoting anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing.

Given his background, it was not long before Yang made a connection with the angry peasants, including Feng, the young accountant who was challenging Chen's leadership of the village.

At a dinner in July organized by Yang in an inexpensive Guangzhou restaurant, Feng was also introduced to Lu, the peasant organizer who was later to be beaten. Lu was already gaining recognition for his activism. In 2003, he had endured beatings and used a five-day hunger strike to force out the leader of his own village, in Hubei province, on corruption charges. The government-run China Youth Daily had hailed him at the time as a "front-runner of peasant grass-roots democracy." Eager to pursue his activism, he was immediately attracted to the fight over Taishi's leadership.

Lu, whose oily hair and ill-fitting black suit bespeak his peasant background, said he had come to Beijing in April and again in early July seeking guidance from more educated political activists about what to do next. One of the people he met during those consultations in the capital, he said in an interview, was Yang. And the subject of Taishi was already part of their conversation.

An activist leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Beijing-based community organizers had decided to lend support to Feng's cause soon after they heard of his challenge. For them, encouraging farmers to push for more democratic village elections was a longtime national goal, and Taishi seemed to fit the bill. They also reasoned this fast-growing region would be fertile ground, he said, because of its economic development and nearness to the relatively liberal atmosphere of Hong Kong.

Lu, the peasant organizer, moved to Guangzhou soon after talking with Yang. He found a job for about $65 a month in a factory manufacturing plastic Christmas trees. Although earning some badly needed money was his main motive for taking up residence here, Lu said it also meant he was on hand to offer advice when, in Taishi, the two peasants Feng and Liang decided to press a legal case for removing their village leader.

Yang and Lu, two veteran activists, quietly got involved in the struggle. They advised the Taishi villagers on what options were open to them under China's election laws, Lu said, and inspired them by recounting Lu's experience in booting out a corrupt leader back home in Hubei province. Basing their demand on the election law and its recall provision, Feng and Liang filed a formal recall motion on July 29. According to Lu and the district government, the motion was drafted with help from Lu and Yang.

It carried more than 400 signatures, meeting the threshold of endorsement by 20 percent of Taishi's 1,500 registered voters.

Villagers gathered two days later in an open square. From atop a heap of bricks, as local reporters and other witnesses looked on, Feng read a section from Chinese law books saying village accounts must be published every six months and villagers had the right to recall Chen.

"The law will be our guardian," he vowed.

Sit-in Protest Escalates

An alarm bell rang in the village committee office on the evening of Aug. 3. Villagers who heard the noise rushed to the scene and, they recalled, surprised the village accountant and a companion in what looked like an attempt to spirit away the ledgers. Before the two could get away with the books, the villagers told reporters, a crowd gathered and prevented them from leaving. The accounts stayed put.

The next morning, police and district officials came to take the books away -- to protect them, they said. Villagers called the Guangzhou Communist Party Discipline and Inspection Bureau, denouncing what they interpreted as an attempt to cover up malfeasance. But their calls elicited no response, they said. A group of elderly women moved into the three-story administration building and refused to budge. The ledgers would stay, they vowed.

As the sit-in continued, plainclothes security agents detained a protest leader as he rode his motorcycle down a village lane on Aug. 16. On hearing the news, hundreds of villagers poured out of their homes and surrounded the van into which the agents had stuffed the leader, blocking its passage.

After a several-hour confrontation during which the number of protesters swelled to more than 1,000, witnesses said, an estimated 500 riot police drove up in several dozen vehicles and waded into the crowd, swinging their batons. In Internet postings, villagers reported five of their number were arrested. A 16-year-old youth suffered a concussion, they said, and an 80-year-old peasant woman suffered a broken bone and had to be hospitalized. The sit-in continued, meanwhile, with the elderly women still refusing to leave. Within days, their numbers grew.

The district government two weeks later handed down a ruling that the recall motion was unacceptable because it was a photocopy, and the law demanded the original signatures. Outraged, a number of villagers, including elderly women, started a hunger strike outside the district headquarters building.

After several days, some of the hunger strikers were detained and later released on condition they return home, the protesters said. As they left custody about 3 p.m., they reported, officials gave them box lunches.

Despite the gesture, the atmosphere remained tense. As police moved in to make the arrests, one elderly woman threatened to blow up the building by igniting a canister of liquefied gas, according to witnesses. Yang sent messages to Chinese and foreign reporters recounting what was happening and urging them to visit. A reporter from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post showed up, and two youths smashed her car windows with rocks.

Triumph for the Villagers

From that point on, things moved fast.

On Sept. 5, a delegation of villagers went to the district headquarters to present the original recall motion with the original signatures. But official patience had frayed. Activists later speculated that word had come down from Beijing that the uproar in Taishi -- and the confluence of political activism with peasant outrage -- had to be stopped. Although his role could not be determined, Premier Wen Jiabao visited the region Sept. 9-13 to confer with senior regional and city officials.

Beijing-based activists said they received warnings from the Civil Affairs Ministry about that time to back away from the Taishi dispute. "Everybody was scared," one of them recalled.

Back in Taishi, more than 50 vehicles drove up to the village administration building on Sept. 12 and disgorged hundreds of riot police, witnesses said. Swinging batons and training high-pressure hoses on the elderly women inside, the police cleared the building and made way for district officials to take away the account books.

Nearly 50 protesters were taken into custody. The next day, Yang was also arrested as he drove to meet a crew from the Hong Kong-based Phoenix satellite television channel. Lu was urged to leave, but refused. "You know, he is just like a farmer; he is stubborn," said an activist who has worked with Lu.

Then, in a surprise turn of events, the district government announced that the recall motion was proved valid and villagers should choose an election committee to organize a new vote for village chief, scheduled for the middle of October. The protests should now stop, it said, and activists with "ulterior motives" should be ignored.

On first glance, this seemed like a triumph for the villagers. The official party newspaper, People's Daily, hailed the outcome as a model for village elections and pointed to signs of "a democratic environment built upon rationality and legality."

But then the district government arbitrarily chose all candidates for the seven-person election committee -- and all were local officials loyal to Chen.

Outraged, the still-defiant villagers threatened to boycott the vote. Seeking to prevent more violence, the district government swiftly relented and allowed another slate to run as well. The vote was held Sept. 16; all the unofficial candidates were elected and none of the government's slate.

The seven committee members now had four weeks to organize a new vote for village chief. But somewhere in the government and party bureaucracy -- activists believe it was at a senior level in Beijing -- officials had decided Chen would not be replaced, lest a precedent be set.

The Government Responds

Lu, who was in the village to monitor the Sept. 16 vote, was picked up by police the same day. After a long interrogation and a warning to clear out of the area, he was released that evening. In what they hoped was a farewell gesture, police officers bought him a pair of $12 shoes, he said later, to replace those that had come off during a brief struggle when he was taken into custody.

District officials announced shortly after the new election committee was chosen that their auditors had found no evidence of wrongdoing in the Taishi accounts. Party and government officials swiftly fanned out to persuade villagers to drop the struggle. Unless the recall motion was withdrawn, they suggested, detained relatives might stay in jail and people might lose their jobs.

The threats worked. The district government reported by the end of September that 396 of the 584 signatures were withdrawn. The recall procedure therefore was invalid, it announced, and the vote scheduled for October was canceled.

Then guards wearing camouflage fatigues, but without official insignia, took up positions at streets leading into the village and began screening outsiders trying to enter and villagers trying to leave.

Villagers told activists the guards were unemployed men from surrounding villages paid $12 a day by Chen's head of security. The district government claimed in a statement that they were Taishi villagers upset at the uproar in their community. Two foreign reporters who drove up Oct. 7 to find out why the signatures were withdrawn were attacked by the guards and driven off.

It was the next night that Lu tried to drive in, along with a reporter from the Guardian newspaper, also seeking to learn what had changed since mid-September.

"We never imagined that we would be suppressed like this," Lu said.

In an interview nearly two weeks after his beating, Lu's lips were covered with scabs and his arms with bruises. His eyes were blurry at times and his head ached, he said, but he vowed to persist in organizing farmers to pick their own village leaders.

"I will definitely continue," he said, "but how to do it is the question now."

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