Farmer-Turned-Activist Plants Seeds of Reform
Thursday, June 26, 2008
BEIJING -- Back in 1998, Lu Banglie remembered, he was just another farmer trying to get compensation for the pumpkins and cabbages ruined by floods that engulfed his little field in central China.
But one thing led to another, and then another. In the decade since the flooding, Lu, 36, has been transformed into a man with a mission. The wiry, plain-talking peasant from Hubei province is now a thorn in the side of the Communist Party, a self-taught activist using the law to protect China's farmers from the pressures of development encroaching on their land.
"I have realized how much power you can get from knowledge of the rules and regulations," he said in an interview.
Although China's peasants have repeatedly resorted to violence in recent years, most confrontations have been spontaneous uprisings over local land seizures, unconnected to eruptions elsewhere. But Lu, under the guidance of Beijing-based democracy advocates, sought to apply the experiences of his own village to the struggles of others, taking his activism national.
His main weapon was Chinese law, the letter of which offers many guarantees that, in practice, are often set aside by party leaders. In a country where the Communist Party crushes any attempt at forming associations outside its control, Lu's goal of spreading the word on how to use law books to oppose local leaders amounted to a relatively novel political challenge.
His passage from pumpkins to politics was not without cost. Lu has been severely beaten twice by thugs who he said were dispatched by local party authorities eager to cash in on land transactions at the expense of farmers. The Public Security Bureau, he said, still keeps a close watch on his home village of Baoyuesi, near Yichang, about 320 miles southwest of Beijing.
"I am so closely watched it's hard to do anything there now," he said during a visit to the capital.
But there have been rewards as well. The peasant agitation Lu helped promote has caused the party leadership in Beijing to emphasize that farmers and their fields must be protected from headlong economic development turning much of the countryside into an extended suburb.
With Premier Wen Jiabao as the most vocal proponent of the new protections, the central government has poured subsidies into farming villages and imposed restrictions on the land seizures that are at the heart of most violence. In Guangdong province, where Lu was badly roughed up during a farmers' revolt in 2005, authorities have decreed that construction cannot begin on development projects until farmers are satisfied with their compensation for confiscated land.
Most effective, Beijing two years ago abolished the ancient crop taxes that had been the bane of China's farmers since imperial times. It also began to control the multi-tiered system that forced farmers to pay annual fees to village, county, municipal and provincial authorities as well as the national tax. Partly as a result, violent protests in the countryside have diminished significantly, according to anecdotal reports and statistics from the Public Security Bureau.
"Things are pretty stable now," Lu acknowledged, "and things are a lot better in our village."
Lu, who still farms half an acre, got his start opposing the multiple fee system in his home village and demanding an accounting of government funds allocated to help farmers hurt by the flooding. But he swiftly moved into more political activities, engineering the downfall of the Baoyuesi leader and party secretary.