You cannot say that the suburban area where many of Beijing's expatriates live is quiet, exactly, because it's in the midst of a construction boom. But it is usually tranquil, in its own way. Inside the gated compounds, foreign business executives and wealthy Chinese live in impressive American-size homes, their lawns lined with rosebushes.

Outside the gates are villagers who farm their land and tend their flocks. Frequently, a poorly dressed shepherd will graze his sheep on one of the outer lawns of a ritzy compound, bringing to life the stark contrast between old China and new.

It seemed inevitable that resentment eventually would bubble up among the locals as their world changes around them. Millions of dollars have been poured into the neighborhood, which is near the airport just north of the city, but the bounty seems to have bypassed them.

When confrontation occurred, the foreigners were targeted, though not out of anger at them.

The villagers, claiming they were manipulated by the local government into selling off their farmland to state-owned developers without adequate compensation, said their only hope of getting the attention of leaders in Beijing was to create an international incident.

So early one recent morning, several hundred villagers blocked the road leading to the biggest foreign presence in the area, the new International School of Beijing, an enormous steel-and-glass building that looms over the cornfields like an alien space station.

When the buses came, carrying many of the school's 1,800 children -- from prekindergartners to high-schoolers -- the villagers refused to budge from their barricade of bicycles. The buses were forced to retreat. The police arrived in large numbers.

The international incident was at hand.

Except that this is China, where there is no free press and thus no live reports from local TV correspondents and no story in the next day's Beijing Post.

The only reporter around was me, tipped off because two of my daughters were trapped on their bus for an hour until the school could organize a chaperoned march from the buses, around the barricade and a quarter-mile down the road to the school.

The standoff lasted another hour or so, until police threats became more serious and the locals felt they had made their point. The authorities confiscated the villagers' banners and left.

The dispute has been festering for years, and last autumn I wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune. I had stopped one day at what looked like a quaint scene: Villagers spreading their shucked corn on the road to dry, creating a luminous golden highway just outside the school.

I was curious how the villagers felt about encroaching development and got an earful about how they lost much of their land, had no other jobs and were certain they were cheated. Local officials declined to comment.

Disputes between villagers and developers have become common in China because so much money is changing hands and the government is usually on both sides of the deal. The farmers are shut out of power and there is no independent press or judiciary to act as watchdog.

Protesting is not allowed and can land participants in prison or a labor camp. But China's leadership has acknowledged that many farmers have been bilked by local officials and require redress.

Last week's protest was organized by village women, who took charge because they calculated they were less likely to be arrested than men, and if they were taken into custody, the outcry from the village would be greater. Most of the people on the front line of the barricade were gray-haired grannies.

The organizers said villagers spent months registering complaints in Beijing to no avail, and they feel increasingly frantic because they know the village will be razed in a year or two for another development. They expect to negotiate a decent deal this time, but once they are relocated they will lose the chance to recover money for their previous losses.

"We've got grandchildren, and we felt bad when we saw the foreign children looking scared when they walked past us on the way to school, but there was no other way for us to create an incident," said one of the organizers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest.

Having received no response from the government, and not wanting to inconvenience the foreigners, the organizers said they will look for another way to make their voices heard.