October 13, 2004

China Crushes Peasant Protest, Turning 3 Friends Into Enemies


WANGYING, China - A decade ago, three friends shook hands, downed a bottle of rice wine and vowed to fight to the end against Communist Party officials who imposed illegal taxes and fees on them and their families.

Wang Junbin, an army veteran, was their strategist. Wang Hongchao, eager and voluble, rallied fellow villagers. Wang Xiangdong fearlessly confronted party bosses. The three peasants, who share the same surname but were bound only by their mission, endured a violent police crackdown, got tax refunds, and even won the right to govern their own village in the arid plains of northwestern Anhui Province.

Yet power, vanity and the guile of the Communist Party tore them apart. The authorities persuaded Wang Hongchao to testify against Wang Xiangdong in court, creating lasting animosity. Neither can abide Wang Junbin. He was lured away to become a party official and is today as much a target of protest as the bosses they once battled together.

Since China's peasantry began falling far behind the urban elite in the go-go 1990's, the countryside has been a font of unrest. It is the rare village, among the 700,000 across China, where residents are not protesting something - corruption, high taxes or fees, confiscated land, punitive birth-control policies.

Like thousands of peasant activists, the three Mr. Wangs raised funds, petitioned township, county, provincial and national officials, and got some redress.

But they were also typical in their failure to bring lasting change. They were susceptible to the carrots and sticks the Communist Party uses to keep order in the hinterland and to ensure that heroism is no more than a chapter in a tale of submission. China has not yet figured out how to make its capitalist-style economic growth egalitarian. It has become one of the developing world's most unequal societies.

Hu Jintao, China's president, party chief and military leader, has said he intends to make the economy work for those left behind. The government has promised to limit the financial burden imposed on peasants.

But leaders before him have said similar things, and Beijing's priorities have remained consistent.

The government uses China's 800 million farmers to provide grain, labor and capital for urban development. State banks take deposits in rural areas but make loans almost exclusively to richer ones. The authorities pour resources into prestigious urban projects, like the $1.24 billion Shanghai spent to build a state-of-the-art Formula One racetrack and play host to the European event through 2010.

Villages rarely get such help. All farm families, regardless of income, pay land and agriculture taxes as well as fees for social services, often exceeding what wealthier urban residents pay.

Partly as a result, the authoritarian government has learned to live with seething social discontent. It has become practiced at defusing confrontations that threaten one-party rule.

The village of Wangying shows how the party operates: the three Mr. Wangs led a sustained protest that was forcibly put down in April 1994. The ringleaders were then intimidated or tamed, and ultimately turned against one another.

The differences between the three former allies are so acute today that when a local party boss brought a libel suit against the authors of a best-selling book that featured the village, his star witness for the boss was Wang Junbin. Wang Xiangdong and Wang Hongchao defended the writers.

"There's no hope for our organization," said Wang Hongchao, who stopped fighting for village rights and now collects scrap metal in the city of Hangzhou.

"It used to be that no matter where you were, you came back to help the village," he said. "Now it's every man for himself."

Origins of an Uprising

Throughout Chinese history, peasants have been heavily taxed and lightly represented. Mao Zedong rode to power on the shoulders of a peasant army 55 years ago and promised a revolution. He eliminated the feudal landholding system. But he also embraced the Soviet model of rapid industrialization, keeping grain prices low and devoting capital to building factories.

When Deng Xiaoping undertook economic reforms 25 years ago, he began by dismantling collective farms and giving peasants the right to sell produce at market prices. Soybeans, spring onions, cabbage and corn, the staples of this village's patchwork of tiny plots, saw big price increases, and residents prospered.

The 1990's undermined those gains. Taxes soared even as the state ended most Maoist-style education and health benefits. Cities now impose a graduated income tax on well-off residents. But rural governments, made to finance themselves without state support, place a heavier burden on much poorer peasants. Here in Wangying, villagers say, a tax on cash crops was applied to everyone, even those who grew only grain. Fees were assessed to pay official salaries, fix roads, hold banquets, even cremate the dead. In the early 90's, Wang Hongchao refused to pay fees assessed for school renovations. "They never touched the school," he said. "They just wanted money." The authorities confiscated his television in retaliation.

Wang Xiangdong's wife gave birth to a second child, a girl, violating population control rules. Officials demanded a $75 fine, equivalent to several month's income.

Wang Junbin, unlike the others, declined to discuss his past activism in detail. But longtime colleagues described him as having been outraged to discover that local leaders forced villagers to cover bad loans they had made.

The three men are neighbors. They grew up playing in the dusty, sunburned fields. They griped about their rising burden over shots of fiery rice wine.

Wang Junbin spurred them to action. Having returned from the army, where he joined the Communist Party, he secured a salaried job in the township land bureau. There he uncovered documents that showed that the village's service fees exceeded the permitted maximum level - 5 percent of average per capita income - by a factor of three. They had a smoking gun.

They began petitioning local officials in early 1994 without much success. After a few months, they mobilized 300 neighbors to call on Zhang Xide, the Communist Party chief of Linquan County, which oversees the village. After a long sit-in, Mr. Zhang received them. He scribbled a note asking lower-level cadres to help the villagers. But he never enforced the order.

The three men had more success when they took their case to Beijing. An official in the Agriculture Ministry took sympathy and told Anhui provincial officials to investigate.

In China's hierarchical system, that prompted action. A provincial inquiry supported their accusations. The village officials had overcharged peasants by at least $6,000. They returned $600 immediately and promised more.

Or so they said. Mr. Zhang, apparently angered that the three had gone over his head, retaliated. Wang Junbin lost his job at the land bureau. Wang Xiangdong and Wang Hongchao were summoned to township offices. They were met there by thugs who beat them with fists and sticks, then dumped them on the side of a road.

"I knew from that day that wolves eat sheep," said Wang Xiangdong. "We had to stick together or they would cut us apart."

The '4-3 Incident'

Late on the night of April 2, 1994, villagers appointed to watch for intruders sounded the alarm. Outsiders were discovered searching for the three Mr. Wangs. Neighbors surrounded men who turned out to be plainclothes policemen. Their guns and ammunition were taken away.

Although locals say they quickly released the policemen and returned the guns, the authorities had a pretense for tougher action. Under orders from Mr. Zhang, who supervised from a command center, more than 100 police officers wearing riot gear and carrying automatic weapons descended on the village the next morning.

Court accounts of what came to be called the "4-3 incident," after the date it occurred, say male villagers were arrested and beaten. Some were doused with boiling water. Others were forced to kneel and were whipped. Homes were ransacked.

The three Mr. Wangs fled to nearby Henan Province, where the police did not immediately follow. They huddled in a friend's home. Wang Junbin told Wang Xiangdong and Wang Hongchao to rush to Beijing, hoping that the authorities who helped them before would rescue them. It was their last team meeting.

Wang Hongchao and Wang Xiangdong made it to Beijing. But they were now wanted for instigating riots and were arrested when they tried to meet a Beijing official.

Both men described the conditions in custody as unbearable. They were shackled day and night. Interrogators pressed lighted cigarettes against their skin. The two were told to confess and provide evidence on others or face long jail terms.

Wang Xiangdong has a close-cropped helmet of hair and a wrestler's glare. He is known for his stubbornness and sharp tongue. He never cooperated with the police. Wang Hongchao is rail thin, quick to smile and eager to please. He relented, signing a statement that identified Wang Xiangdong as the mastermind of their uprising.

"They made up evidence and forced me to put my thumbprint on it," Wang Hongchao recalled. "I thought it would not be accepted in court."

Wang Junbin, meanwhile, spent months on the lam, primarily in a courtyard home a few miles from Wangying. He was stripped of his Communist Party membership. The authorities plastered the area with wanted posters that accused him of extorting money from peasants and interfering with officials carrying out their public duties. Two villagers who took care of him said he hid in a closet when the police patrolled the area.

He secretly coordinated petition efforts in exile, once leading a group of 60 villagers to Beijing to protest the crackdown. But in early 1995, even as Wang Xiangdong was serving his sentence, a senior local cadre arranged private meetings with Wang Junbin and several others still active in the movement, villagers said.

The official said the authorities would grant amnesty to those who stopped protesting. "They said they would clear the record and rewrite history," said one villager who got the offer.

One day in early 1995, Wang Junbin told protesters to return $50 he had provided for a mission to Beijing. "He told me that petitioning higher authorities was no use anymore," one said.

Fraying Friendships

Though Wang Junbin dropped out, protests did not stop. Continuing appeals about the use of force in the 4-3 crackdown prompted the authorities to review the case. Zhang Xide, the county party chief, was transferred, his record blemished by violence. His successors tried more nuanced tactics to end the unrest.

The Communist Party readmitted Wang Junbin and gave him back his old job in the land bureau. Wang Xiangdong was released early, having served less than half his term.

But ties between the three friends frayed. Wang Junbin avoided the others. Trouble also brewed between Wang Xiangdong and Wang Hongchao. Wang Xiangdong, having served hard time and defied the police, was hailed locally as a hero. Wang Hongchao, labeled a coward by some, felt that his sacrifices were not fully credited.

"Unlike some people," Wang Hongchao said, referring to Wang Xiangdong, "I did not advertise what I did. Some villagers did not appreciate my role."

Tensions burst into the open in early 1996 when the government, partly to placate Wangying, allowed villagers to choose their next chief in elections. Village-level elections had been phased in nationwide beginning in the early 1980's, but were being tried in Wangying for the first time.

Though no open campaigning was allowed, Wang Xiangdong and Wang Hongchao competed for the job along with two other candidates. Wang Xiangdong won easily. Wang Hongchao placed fourth of four.

It was a moment to savor for Wang Xiangdong, just a few months out of jail. He vowed to run a clean administration. He said there would be no more banquets at public expense. He did the job without pay.

"I wanted my administration to be for the people instead of for the leaders," he said.

Prospects initially seemed bright. Wang Xiangdong negotiated an aid package from the county in return for ending protests. It was something rare in China: state investment in a village. The modest commitment, totaling $150,000, was for a road, a bridge and several greenhouses.

It turned out to be an empty promise. The bureaucracy moved slowly. Once stability was restored, the incentive to deliver aid diminished.

Wang Xiangdong led a tax strike to put pressure on the authorities. "Why should we hand over more money when they weren't paying us what they owed us?" he said.

But the strike made him a renewed target. And he faced challenges at home from two protest veterans: Wang Junbin and Wang Hongchao.

Wang Junbin, back at the land bureau, produced documents that appeared to raise questions about how the $150,000 package had been handled. He petitioned the authorities to intervene. Wang Hongchao peppered Wang Xiangdong with questions and criticisms in village meetings. After one such session, the two broke into a fistfight, witnesses said.

Wang Hongchao said he had worried that his onetime partner in fighting the abusive authorities had himself become corrupt. But he acknowledged that Wang Xiangdong's rise left him feeling envious.

"He became an official, and I was left with nothing," he said.

Corruption allegations prompted the county to send an inspection team. Wang Xiangdong was not accused of wrongdoing. But the controversy dogged him. When he won re-election in 1999, party officials warned him that the village would suffer if he took office. Wang Xiangdong said he realized that he could accomplish nothing and stepped aside.

The village was not allowed to hold another election. Officials wanted a reliable Communist Party official to oversee its affairs. They appointed Wang Junbin.

Abiding Rivalries

Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, husband and wife authors based in Anhui Province, wrote a chapter about Wangying's 1994 uprising in their best-selling exposé of rural problems in China, titled "An Investigation of China's Peasants." Though the book was banned by the propaganda authorities after it was published this year, the authors estimate that seven million pirated versions have been sold. The three Mr. Wangs were celebrated as a new breed of peasant activist.

Yet the subsequent rivalry between them muddled the message. Zhang Xide, the county party chief, sued Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu for libel. In August, a court in Mr. Zhang's home district of Fuyang, Anhui, heard the case, which is still under review. Wang Xiangdong and Wang Junbin were headline witnesses - for opposing sides.

In testimony spiced with rural epithets, Wang Xiangdong listed his grievances against Mr. Zhang: illegal taxes and fees, violent suppression of peaceful dissent. "He promises one thing and does another.'' he said. "He uses stealthy means to savagely oppress the common people."

Wang Junbin spoke hesitantly, as if recalling a prepared text. He said Mr. Zhang had given peasant petitioners "warm greetings and a sweet attitude." The 4-3 crackdown, he said, was justified because "troublemakers behaved illegally."

Their split plagues the village today.

Fall brings the big harvest. Six-foot stalks of soybeans are piled in lean-tos and tepees along a rutted dirt road. But with the fields stripped, the village has resumed its slumber.

It has no shops or factories, not even a brick kiln like those common in rural China. Most working-age men have sought temporary jobs in cities. Those left behind survive mainly on remittances.

Villagers express scorn for their party chief, Wang Junbin, perhaps especially because he once promised something new.

"He has to hide in his home," says Wu Fengmei, a village housewife. "No one heeds him here." Wang Zhenhua, a retired village official, called him a traitor. "In the old days, he would have been buried alive."

Villagers say the tax and fee abuses of the early 1990's have been overtaken by a new list of woes.

Welfare funds intended for the poorest villagers were never distributed, several people charged. Farmers were supposed to get compensation after a drought in 2002, but the money never arrived.

Wang Junbin seized several acres of prime village farmland, had a cavernous ditch dug and sold the soil to out-of-town brick makers, several people who protested the action said. He did not share the proceeds. The ditch is now a fishpond that Mr. Wang appointed an associate to run, villagers say.

Wang Junbin denied that he had pocketed funds intended for villagers or expropriated land for his own use. The village is more prosperous and better run than ever before, he said.

"These stories come from a few individuals who are making up accusations to hurt me," said. "Their goal is simply to stir up discontent and drive me out of power so they can rise up."

His old comrades are among the critics. After they joined forces against Wang Xiangdong, Wang Hongchao expected Wang Junbin to ask him to join his administration. The two discussed matters over rice wine one evening, but did not come to terms. Wang Hongchao, distressed, left for distant Hangzhou.

"He whitewashes the past, like it never existed," Wang Hongchao said.

Wang Xiangdong stayed on. He runs a scrap yard, full of rusty tractor and motorcycle carcasses, in an abandoned gas station. But his real occupation is protesting.

Recently he paraded around the village with a bullhorn, urging people to review evidence that Wang Junbin had lied about drought relief funds.

Wang Junbin had the police arrest him and detain him for 15 days. The charge: "Interfering with officials carrying out their public duties."


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