Bringing Revolution to China's Villages--Democracy Activists Challenge Old Guard(2002-09-15)

By John Pomfret Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 15, 2002;

DONGTAN VILLAGE, China -- When Yao Lifa and Yan Qingjin journey down the dirt road to this riverside village, they are greeted as conquering heroes. The village committee crowds around, and the village chief hustles in from harvesting his crops. There's even talk that some babies will be named after the pair.

"Victory is inevitable," Yan shouted to the assembled leaders during a recent trip, sounding like an underground Communist agitator during China's revolution in the 1940s. "Victory belongs to the people!"

Yan, 68, and Yao, 45, have brought a revolution to Dongtan village, located in Hubei province 500 miles west of Shanghai. But it is a revolution that has profoundly disturbed China's authorities. Over the past two years, Yao and Yan have helped the hamlet of 1,500 boot out village leaders installed by the township government, hold a new election for village chief, prod police into investigating shady dealings of former village bosses and launch a tax strike that continues to this day.

Yan and Yao are foot soldiers in a revolt in the heart of rural China, home to over 70 percent of China's 1.3 billion people. They are an unlikely pair; Yao, a local legislator, is famed for his fiery temper and barnyard tongue, and Yan is a retired teacher who repeatedly suffered during China's political campaigns. The twosome is part of a new breed of Chinese known as "peasant heroes" who are challenging China's rural authorities to live up to Chinese law, allow farmers to elect village leaders, and fight the imposition of rapacious taxes.

The village revolts offer important insights about power in today's China. Despite 15 years of allowing China's poorest people to vote for village leaders, the attempt to introduce a measure of democracy remains elusive -- blocked by authorities afraid of ceding power to the very people upon whom the Communists relied to carry out their revolution. The conflicts also reveal deep fissures of discontent in China's countryside and the beginnings of activist networks dedicated to challenging the party's eroding authority.

The leaders of China's Communist Party will huddle in Beijing on Nov. 8 for the party's 16th Congress. The event may result in a passing of leadership to a new generation, the most important political transition since the crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But a month of travel in five Chinese provinces underscored the increasingly strong support -- among the most common of China's common people -- for broader and more systemic political change than the party is contemplating. This story, part of an occasional series on how power is exercised in China, highlights the deepening gulf that separates China's peasants from its leaders.

For the farmers and their peasant heroes, the stakes in this battle are high. Yao and Yan are routinely threatened with prosecution. Villagers who dare to challenge local authorities are regularly beaten or jailed, occasionally killed, and most often simply isolated by local authorities. Villagers are frightened, and government officials are vigilant about keeping them quiet.

To be interviewed, Li Yunzhi, a village leader in northern Henan province, whose election in May as a local legislator in Nanshe village was annulled by a county government, was bundled into a car and driven overnight to Beijing. He came fresh from his fields, in his work clothes and wearing only flimsy yellow flip-flops. In the capital, where he was just a faceless farmer, he found it safer to talk, rather than at home, where local authorities could prevent him from speaking out.

His election was the second the county government had invalidated in less than a year since village leaders had protested excessive taxes and years of government corruption. In the earlier case, Kong Bubao, elected chief of Nanshe last year, was not only thrown out of office by the county government; he was thrown in jail with a one-year sentence for "obstructing official business," triggered when more than 1,000 police officers invaded the village last November to quash a tax protest.

In Anhui province, Xu Maolian, a village party secretary, was on the lam for months because he led tax protests against the township government. Xu, 58, agreed to be interviewed, but only in a secluded pear orchard after midnight. One of his closest colleagues, a 73-year-old member of a team of four village representatives fighting government tax-collection squads, died in police custody last year. As a way to pressure Xu, township authorities sentenced each of his two sons-in-law to two-year jail terms for "obstructing official business." Xu now has no help tending the orchards, and his once-prosperous family is thousands of dollars in debt, a big sum in rural China.

"I am broken man," Xu said, sitting on a flimsy fruit carton among his pear trees.

'Model City'

China began allowing farmers to vote for village chiefs in the late 1980s. The Ministry of Civil Affairs, which oversees voting, says that 60 percent to 70 percent of the elections in China's 800,000 villages are successful, "free and fair."

But Yao contends the reality is different. In an August report of the 354 villages that belong to Qianjiang city in Hubei, Yao concluded that less than 5 percent of the elections were democratic. He found that authorities had illegally removed 187 elected village chiefs from their posts and installed hand-picked leaders since the previous elections, in September 1999. One village leader, He Xiangui, a 49-year-old former soldier, was booted out of his post four times and won it back five times.

"If the top says 'go,' you go. If they say 'stay,' you stay," he said. Yao's report, to the Qianjiang People's Congress, is significant because the civil affairs ministry has named Qianjiang a "model city" for village elections. Hubei provincial authorities said they are investigating Yao's claims. His conclusions have been reported in internal party publications and were confirmed by a senior official in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"If this place is a model, then you can imagine what the trouble spots are like," Yao said. His findings were bolstered by a recent document published by China's State Council, issued on Aug. 18, which ordered all local governments to stop interfering in village elections. The document for the first time publicly acknowledged that some local governments had caused unrest because they "did not allow sufficient democracy."

China began to experiment with village elections -- pushed in the 1980s by Peng Zhen, then the head of the national legislature -- as an effort by the Communist Party to enhance its control over rural areas.

At the time, China was dismantling the people's commune system, established in the 1950s when the country collectivized land ownership. In the 1980s, China gave the land back to the farmers, allowing them to lease plots for decades. But the breakup of the communes caused a breakdown in local government. Communist Party reports cited "paralysis" in the countryside, where thousands of villages had exceeded government control. Taxes were not being collected. Primary education was being neglected. Irrigation systems were falling apart.

"The elections were instituted as a way to control society -- not to free it," said Yu Jianrong, a leading Chinese social scientist who recently spent several years researching rural problems in Hunan province. "The goal wasn't democracy, it was a reassertion of the party's influence in the villages."

But control has been difficult for the government to achieve. Since the elections were instituted, rural unrest has skyrocketed. Central China has been shaken by a series of farmer rebellions, some of them bloody.

The origins of the village revolts are hotly contested. China's old guard has blamed democracy, saying farmers are too backward to handle the responsibilities of an election. China's Western-leaning reformers have blamed treacherous township governments that have squeezed the farmers for more and more taxes.

The underlying causes, however, are a tangled web of corruption, clashing interests and dysfunctional bureaucracy in the countryside.

In the early 1990s, on average, each township government had 30 employees. Now the average is more than 100, according to Chinese researchers. In rural China today, 70 percent of government expenditures are absorbed by personnel costs. For peasants, the explosion in the number of bureaucrats has meant higher taxes -- in some cases 20 times higher than a decade ago.

The bloated bureaucracy has emerged just as farmers' incomes have suffered their worst decline since 1978, when China launched economic reforms. That decline is expected to continue. Township factories, an engine for rural growth in the early 1990s, are collapsing across China. The local plants contributed a significant share of township revenue and farmers' income. In addition, crop prices are expected to fall further as China opens its markets to foreign competition under the terms of its accession to the World Trade Organization.

Farmers have been further burdened by the central government's efforts -- backed by a 1994 tax reform program -- to claim a greater share of the country's tax revenues. That has left townships and counties with less money to pay for such services as schools and health care.

An April report by the World Bank concluded that China's local fiscal system was "malfunctioning."

Towns and villages have responded to these shortfalls by squeezing the peasantry with extra fees, and by borrowing from banks. Chinese researchers say 44,000 townships owe a total of $24 billion, or about $500,000 each. The total debt of China's 800,000 villages is believed to be twice as high.

Central government subsidies have not sufficiently compensated for the shortfall. Following widespread demonstrations and violent clashes over crushing taxes imposed on farmers in Anhui province, Beijing ordered the province to cut taxes. The central government increased its subsidy to the region, but not sufficiently to offset the tax cut.

"The farmers used to avoid taxes, but now they line up to pay," enthused Zhou Zefeng, an official from Dangshan county in northern Anhui province. But at the same time, Zhou said, county revenues have dropped by half. The result is that long-term needs will remain unfulfilled. "If villagers want to build a school or repair a road, now they will have to raise the money themselves," he said.

'Study Class'

Taxes are at the heart of Dongtan's struggle. The conflict sets the village against the township of Zhugentan, to which the village belongs.

In the spring of 2000, township officials started a tax collection campaign. They dispatched teams of officials backed by local toughs -- given $4 in cash, a carton of cigarettes, a toothbrush and a towel -- to force villagers to pay what the township claimed were back taxes.

In all, 19 villagers were beaten and locked up in what is known throughout rural China as a "study class." They were packed together into one room. There they ate, slept and defecated.

"In China, a study class is like a barbershop," mused Yan, the retired teacher. "They call it a barbershop but we know it's a whorehouse. They call it a study class but we know it's a jail."

Demanding Fees

One of the victims was Zeng Xiangjun. He was incarcerated not because he was a tax deadbeat, local officials acknowledged, but because he was a malcontent. Most recently he had called attention to the practice of village leaders demanding fees from students, when schooling should be free. Such demands are commonplace throughout the country, because of corruption and a shortfall in funds. But they are also illegal, and village and township leaders were angry at being fingered by Zeng.

Upon his release, Zeng sought out Yan, the retired teacher.

Yan said he has fallen afoul of almost every major political campaign since the 1957 movement against people who dared to criticize Chinese leader Mao Zedong. During the 1959-61 Great Leap Forward, he was denied work. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, he was forced to live in a cowshed and was publicly beaten seven times.

"I have spent my life fighting the mistakes of the Communist Party," he said. Yan has joined the party three times and been expelled twice.

But Yan is also a respected retired high school teacher. Many of the local officials were his students. "Here," he said, "everybody has ties to everybody else."

Yan and Yao wrote a report in October 2000 to the city government, documenting the abuses in the "study class."

Zhang Weidong, Qianjiang's party secretary, recommended that officials involved should be "criticized" but not prosecuted. Yao, Yan and Dongtan village kept pushing.

During their research into the study class, Yao and Yan discovered flaws in the village's previous election, held on Sept. 28, 1999. One man voted 100 times, and candidates were first vetted by the party -- both violations of central government rules.

For the next year, the village and the township battled. In January 2001, the township agreed to hold a new election but then reversed course and unilaterally appointed a new village committee. Villagers signed petitions and dispatched Yao to Beijing to complain to the National People's Congress.

Yao and Yan continued to agitate among the villagers, holding ad hoc classes on law, citizens' rights and taxes. Undercover police recorded their speeches, searching for anti-party statements.

"This was a face-to-face struggle," Yan recalled. "It was a hell of a fight. They had cars and mobile phones. We had the law."

Yan and Yao had other weapons, too, which reveal important changes in the way China works. Yao has used reporters on numerous occasions to expose problems in his district. Both the Hubei Daily, the province's most influential newspaper, and China News Service in Beijing dispatched reporters who penned internal reports for party leaders that helped Yao's case. Southern Weekend, widely considered China's most influential newspaper, put Yao's village election report on its front page. Yao also has his backers inside Hubei's provincial government and as far away as Beijing.

"There is an informal network of people like us," said the general director of a department at a powerful ministry in Beijing who asked not to be identified. "We know Yao Lifa. We try to protect people like him."

The pressure paid off. On April 6, 2001, Dongtan held its first free vote. And the winner was Zeng Xiangjun, the farmer who had been incarcerated for complaining about the school fees.

Zeng's experience as a freely elected village chief has been one of confrontation.

Zhang Bangbiao, the former village accountant, refused to hand over the village seals that Zeng, 51, needed to conduct official business. Zhang said he paid $4,000 for the seals (which, villagers say, gave him the ability to steal taxes) so he wanted someone to buy them back.

The township has sought to block Dongtan's new village committee from opening the old accounts, although two corruption investigations have been launched.

One former village party secretary, Yang Xinwen, was arrested after investigators found he had used $2,500 in village funds to send his daughter to private school. Zhang, the former accountant, is also under investigation.

As the probes began to look into earlier misdeeds -- implicating officials who now work in higher positions -- they were stopped. Four years of accounting records, from 1994-97, are locked up in a police station. At least $100,000 in back taxes are unaccounted for.

The village rebelled with a tax strike. "So we stopped paying taxes completely," Zeng said. "What could we do?"

In Zhugentan township, officials display open disdain for Zeng, the village rebel. "He's not a good village chief," said Zhang Yiquan, a township official. "He can't solve simple problems, isn't educated and can't take notes during meetings."

Asked if democracy had helped Dongtan, Zeng shook his head.

"Not yet," he said. "What good is democracy if you can't get anything done?"

© 2002 The Washington Post Company