Globe and Mail: In southern China, villagers raise their own banners in fight against corruption

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher


QI’AO, CHINA — The Globe and Mail

Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015

Banners are one of China’s best-loved propaganda tools. In every city and town, large fabric scrolls extoll the virtues of harmony, stability, civilized development and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Far fewer places are decorated with the protest banners that line the quiet roads of Qi’ao, a small island community in China’s southern Guangdong province. For much of the year, this tourist destination not far from Hong Kong and Macau has been overshadowed by a passionate fight against authorities – one motivated in part by Mr. Xi himself.

“Return our home, return our land, return the right for Qi’ao villagers to be the masters of our homes,” says a large white placard hung on the traditional gate that marks the entrance to the village of 2,000. “Qi’ao has corrupt officials, villagers suffer indescribable misery,” says another. “Seriously punish the corrupt officials,” says one more.

The banners have stayed up for four months, reposted every time the authorities sweep in and pull them down with long sticks. Villagers who engage in such voluble protests know they risk heavy reprisals.

But for the past two years, China’s top leadership has waged a high-profile corruption campaign against what they call “tigers and flies” – dirty bureaucrats both big and small. Now, in some parts of rural China, villagers see new permission to mount their own campaigns.

“We didn’t dare to protest in the past. It’s only because now our President Xi is fighting all of the tigers and flies, that’s why,” said Ms. Tang, 61, a farmer who, like all of the Qi’ao protesters, asked that only her surname be used for fear of reprisal by authorities.

“That’s why we have the courage to do it.”

The protest started when the local government took land from village farmers and barred them from planting rice, offering compensation far below what the land is worth today. The broad sketches of discontent are familiar in a country where land seizures have been one of the principal fuels for growth and urban wealth – but also social unrest.

In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the country experienced 100,000 “mass incidents” – protests with 100 or more people. Land disputes make up roughly two-thirds of those disputes. Some have turned violent, with authorities bloodying protesters and villagers setting fire to cars. Others have led to startling, albeit short-lived, outcomes, such as a 2011 protest in Wukan, where villagers overthrew the local government and, the following year, staged an election to choose new leadership – a rare display of democracy in China.

Some are driven by long-standing grievances. The villagers in Qi’ao lost their land in 1988.

“Cases like this, which have gone on for so many years without resolution, are actually quite common in China,” said Zhang Yulin, a professor at Nanjing University who has written extensively on local land disputes.

But with a new generation of Chinese leadership “putting significant effort into combatting corruption, it is consequently encouraging villagers – some who may have regained hope.”

Qi’ao is just 50 kilometres across the water from Hong Kong, in a steamy southern climate that once produced big crops of rice. But after the land was taken, most of it went unused, waiting for development that was slow to come. Over the years, the island built bicycle lanes, attracted tourists and sold off space to an experimental school whose parents pick up their children in Mercedes SUVs. But even today, much of the land has been left to grow tall with weeds and grasses.

The villagers are barred from farming it and have instead taken what jobs they could find. Ms. Tang made and sold bread. Ms. Cai, also 61, went to Macau to help look after her sister’s children.

A different Ms. Cai, 64, found work caring for the elderly. Losing her land left her with no way out of poverty, she said. Her family scraped by in part through money sent back by relatives who had moved to Hong Kong and Macau.

“We have eight people living in a 1,700-square-foot house now,” Ms. Cai said. “We have not been able to afford a single meal out in a restaurant in the past year. We don’t dare to spend the money.”

She and others know their land is valuable. On the mainland nearby, it sells for about $14-million a hectare. They were told the land sold to the experimental school went for more than $40-million. The villagers were paid $625,000.

The Landesa Rural Development Institute, which advises policy-makers in China, found Chinese authorities resell land to developers, on average, for 41 times the price they pay farmers.

Disparities of that magnitude create abundant space for graft.

“In many if not most cases, villages are run like private kingdoms by [Communist] Party officials who monopolize political and economic affairs. They are often abetted by more senior leaders at the country and city levels, who see village land in particular as a lucrative opportunity,” said David Bandurski, whose book Dragons in Diamond Village catalogues rural resistance to urbanization.

He understands why those in Qi’ao have claimed inspiration from Mr. Xi. Villagers, he said, may want “to align their goals with the stated priorities of the leadership, which might help to make their case.” But “unfortunately, their hopes are probably misguided.”

Indeed, though there is a “force nine wind” blowing against corruption at the top levels in Chinese politics, Prof. Zhang said, at lower levels of government, “there’s no wind at all.”

For labour protesters, the atmosphere under Mr. Xi has actually grown more strict, in part because so many have proliferated in recent years. “You’re seeing much heavier police presence, a lot of arrests, a lot of detentions, certainly very common harassment of labour activists,” said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, which advocates for Chinese worker rights.

In Qi’ao, police have tossed several protesters into temporary detention and barred others from leaving their island. They have cut off home Internet and villagers have been barred from starting group conversations on WeChat, the popular messaging service whose Chinese owners routinely bow to police demands. Fearful villagers believe someone monitors their communications. When one of them asked his daughter in Beijing for help, he was ordered to report to police. Some journalists have been physically kept from the island.

When a reporter arrived last week, those involved in the protest ran through the streets to a private courtyard where they could talk out of sight.

On a mobile phone, they showed a video they had created to draw attention to their situation. In it, pictures of protests are set to a popular Hong Kong song whose defiant lyrics say: “I am nightmare. I can harass you every day.”

So far, however, the nightmare seems worse for Qi’ao than the authorities. Several officials have been arrested on suspicion of corruption, but one was later released. A deputy mayor has come twice promising answers, but none have arrived.

The villagers, meanwhile, have little to show for their efforts save a rising feeling that they, too, risk being tossed in jail.

“We are really scared right now,” Ms. Tang said.

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