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China: Hunting Tigers In Taishi

Chinese leaders are increasingly worried about protests in the countryside Several incidents, including the brutal beating of a democracy-rights activist, have drawn attention to the tense situation in Taishi village in southeastern China's Guangdong province. At stake are a number of issues that are crucial to the direction of China's future course.

London's "The Guardian" reported on10 October an incident the previous weekend involving a group of about 20 thugs, apparently with links to the local police. The men pulled rights activist Lu Banglie from a car also carrying "The Guardian's" correspondent, his interpreter, and their driver. Lu was brutally beaten by five or six of the men, reportedly to death. Local officials then interrogated the correspondent before releasing him.

Lu subsequently resurfaced in his native Hubei province, about 1,500 kilometers northwest of Taishi. He was quite alive but battered and concerned about pains in his head. This was but the latest in a series of apparently police-inspired beatings he has received in his three years of political involvement. He told Reuters that once he came to after the attack, he found himself in a car with five local officials of Guangzhou's Panyu district, of which Taishi is a part. Lu later wound up in his own home province, for which he is a deputy to the National People's Congress from the city of Zhijiang.
"It's not the peasants who are barbaric, it's the government." -- Lu Banglie

Lu was philosophical about his experience at the hands of the thugs, saying that he "anticipated this kind of outcome. I am that kind of person. I know there are tigers on the mountain, but still I go to the mountain." He told Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Mandarin Service that once he was back in his home area, local officials told him that he should blame the "violent and barbaric" Taishi villagers for his drubbing. He replied, however, that "it's not the peasants who are barbaric, it's the government."

Trouble In Taishi

Some details regarding the situation in and around Taishi in recent months are sketchy, but the main outline is clear. It seems that village chief Chen Jinsheng, who is an elected official under the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) policy of allowing some limited democracy in the villages, was involved in a questionable $12 million land deal in July, in which many suspected him of embezzlement. Lu and human rights lawyer Guo Feixiong were then active in Taishi informing villagers of their rights, including the possibility of circulating petitions to recall Chen. In September, the CCP's central daily "Renmin Ribao" even called the peasants' move to force a new election on 7 October a "model for village self-rule."

But there were also some incidents of violence, including one involving police using water cannons against protesters, many of whom were elderly. The 7 October date came and went without a vote. Guo "disappeared" in September, and a few weeks later his attorney told RFA's Cantonese Service that his client had meanwhile been formally arrested. Guo's sister managed to see him and told RFA that he was experiencing problems with his breathing. Earlier, on 30 September, RFA reported that the authorities had shut down the Yannan Forum, a popular website that reported extensively on Taishi.

Test Case For Party

That village has become a test case for a number of hot-button issues. First, it shows the authorities' nervousness in the face of popular unrest, which even official figures say is on the rise nationwide (see "China: Frustrated Citizens Take To The Streets"). It also shows how the CCP can react when citizens become informed of their rights, namely by physically attacking protesters and rights activists, and shutting down websites that report what is going on (see "China: Bullying The Bloggers").

Furthermore, the unfolding Taishi drama will most likely reveal much about how serious the CCP is about its own rural democracy project and the legal safeguards ostensibly built into it. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao recently said that the party's aim is to expand democracy even further, but the developments in and around Taishi suggest that not everyone is enthusiastic about the plan, if Wen's remarks are to be taken at face value.

Another important factor is corruption, particularly involving land sales. It has become so widespread that the authorities can no longer pretend that it does not exist or that can be found only in isolated cases. And if the CCP is not seen as doing something about it, the party risks even further undermining its legitimacy, which is already questioned against the background of growing social inequality between rich and poor areas.

It is not clear whether anyone mentioned Taishi at the CCP's Central Committee plenum that just ended in Beijing, but General Secretary Hu Jintao's basic message was that time has come for more focus on social stability and promoting a "harmonious society" with sustainable rather than breakneck growth. Meanwhile, Lu told reporters that he "has seen the ugly side of the government."