Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Chinese democracy - Victory in miniature

AMID one of China’s most sweeping crackdowns on dissent in years, the village of Zhaiqiao in the coastal province of Zhejiang has put on an unusual display of people power. A rubbish-strewn, muddled assortment of houses near a huge power station on the shoreline, Zhaiqiao tends not to attract attention. But it shot to fame in December when the village chief, Qian Yunhui, was run over by a truck. Allegations swept the internet that Mr Qian had been killed deliberately because of his long-running efforts to secure better compensation for land ceded by the village to the power plant. (His father, Qian Shunnan, pictured on the right, holds a statement attesting to his son's death.)

The government insisted his death was an accident. The unlicensed driver was sentenced last month to three-and-a-half years in prison. Now the villagers have used the ballot box to show their rejection of the official explanation.
Many commentators have described the story of Qian Yunhui as an example of the breakdown in trust between officialdom and ordinary citizens. The government has tried to stifle coverage, after an initial flurry of reporting in the Chinese press that was sympathetic to the villagers. State-owned newspapers have been ordered to downplay the story. Some of Mr Qian’s close family believe they are being watched.

Two of them agreed to be interviewed by The Economist, but only after being driven to an inconspicuous spot outside the village.

Chinese citizens rarely get a chance to seek revenge by vote. But since the 1990s villages have at least had the nominal power to elect their own heads (real power is often still held by unelected Communist Party secretaries). On March 9th Zhaiqiao village conducted its first polls in six years. It was a sensitive time to do it.

The annual ten-day session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), was under way in Beijing. As ever, when the NPC is in session local officials are under strict orders to avoid any disturbance that might distract attention from the meetings in the capital. Central and local governments were especially tense during this year’s session because of anonymous internet-circulated calls for Arab-style pro-democracy protests in China.

Zhaiqiao has had a chequered history with elections. The late Mr Qian won the last ballot in 2005 on a tide of support for his campaign to secure better compensation for the land occupied by the power plant. Its generators supply nearly half the energy needs of nearby Wenzhou, the province’s entrepreneurial hub, according to the China Business Journal (in Chinese). But Mr Qian already had a suspended one-and-a-half-year prison term hanging over him for alleged rabble-rousing. In April 2006 the authorities decided to make him serve eight months in jail.

By the time the next elections were due in 2008, Mr Qian was back in prison, this time because of an illegal land transaction. According to a state-owned newspaper, 21st Century Business Herald (in Chinese), Mr Qian had impoverished himself with all his petitioning and, with villagers’ approval, had sold a plot of land. Villagers refused to have fresh elections because they still regarded Mr Qian as the legitimate chief (the term of office normally runs three years). But the government no longer recognised him as such, and turned to the party secretary as the sole authority.

In early 2010 another attempt was made at electing a chief. Villagers were furious. Their hero was getting close to the end of his jail time and they suspected the government wanted to hold the elections quickly in order to make sure that Mr Qian was not out in time to stand. (Elections did not have to be held until this year.) Threatened with a boycott, the government backed down. After his release in July, Mr Qian continued to petition the authorities about the power plant, identifying himself as “village chief by popular will” and using an official village stamp. His funeral on January 1st, a week after he was crushed to death on Zhaiqiao’s main road, prompted clashes between hundreds of police and villagers. There were rumours that one reason local officials might have wanted him dead was to keep from being elected again.

The government must have been very worried that trouble would break out during the polls on March 9th. Their instinct, as it has been on several occasions since the power-plant struggle began, would have been to send in large numbers of police to maintain order. But villagers warned that they would boycott the vote, if it did. The government again backed down (though villagers claim to have seen several plainclothes officers). The result of the election, declared at 3am the following day—to a cheering crowd—was a victory for Qian Yunmeng, who won 1,788 votes against 972 for his rival. Mr Qian is a close cousin of the deceased. In the clannish politics of Chinese villages, his victory was a clear stamp of popular support for his late relative.

News of the election circulated on Chinese blogs and microblogs (eg, see here and here). But China’s official media largely ignored the news. Legal Daily, a Beijing newspaper controlled by the ministry of justice, was an unusual exception. On March 11th it published a detailed account (in Chinese), though it avoided any analysis of the government’s reaction to the outcome. The villagers of Zhaiqiao however have no doubt that the authorities are very unhappy. By Banyan from The Economist

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