As thousands of delegates to China's rubber-stamp parliamentary bodies converge on Beijing for their annual sessions this week, a group of Chinese Muslims has begun a series of very public protests over alleged corruption surrounding years of property deals by a local ruling Chinese Communist Party official in their neighborhood.
At least 1,000 Hui Muslims have been protesting daily in the northern port city of Tianjin in recent days in a bid to remove a village-level official they accuse of decades of corrupt dealings at their expense, protesters told RFA.
Some 5,000 residents of the Hui Muslim village of Tianmu on the right bank of Tianjin's Beiyun river are calling for the recall of Communist Party village secretary Mu Xiangyou amid allegations of graft linked to land disputes that have dragged on for more than 30 years, they said.
Video footage of Tuesday's protest obtained by RFA showed a crowd of several hundred gathered in a public square under a banner calling on the government to investigate Mu's alleged corruption. Residents said demonstrations would likely continue on Wednesday.
Tianmu, with its population of 20,000 people, is one of China's most prominent Muslim communities, and its residents say they have suffered enough amid a massive urban real estate boom in recent decades.
According to one campaigner surnamed Cheng, the community is hoping to press its case with the authorities on the back of a nationwide anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping after taking power in November 2012.
"Before, there were too many forces lined up behind this branch party secretary of ours," Cheng said.
"But now, the political climate has changed, and the Communist Party central government is going after corruption."
Pressure on delegates
The protests, which began in the run-up to annual parliamentary sessions this week in Beijing, seem to be timed to put pressure on delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) and its advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
"They have been waging this campaign against corruption all along, including at the parliamentary sessions, which have anti-corruption as their theme," Cheng said in an interview on Tuesday.
While the CPPCC is already in session, nearly 3,000 lawmakers will gather in Beijing on Thursday to hear work reports and approve policy speeches from leaders at the NPC annual session, although scant debate takes place in the cavernous chamber, where official motions are always carried with a near-unanimous vote.
According to Cheng, the police presence at the demonstration in Tianmu has so far been negligible, suggesting that the local government wants to avoid trouble at a politically sensitive time.
"The villagers are demonstrating peacefully, and they haven't blocked any roads," Cheng said.
Tianmu residents have already filed petitions to central government in Beijing over the loss of some 3,000 mu (hectares) of farmland to Mu Xiangyou's property deals, leaving them with just 100 mu.
Some 7,000-8,000 mu of land zoned for residential use has also passed out of local residents' hands, they said.
A Tianmu resident surnamed Liu said Mu had sold his home and his land to a property developer in 2008 without his knowledge, and that his home was later demolished.
Complaints to the next level of government had yielded no response, Liu said.
"The local government didn't want to get involved," he said. "These officials all protect each other; it's absolutely horrifying."
Repeated calls to the Tianmu village committee offices rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
An official who answered the phone at the Tianmu township government said it didn't deal with Tianmu village's land matters.
"You should take this up with the relevant departments," the official said.
A Tianmu resident surnamed Chen said villagers had sent a delegation to the township government again on Wednesday, but the government had done little to resolve the dispute.
"They got involved, but they didn't resolve the issue," he said. "They are still protecting Mu Xiangyou, and we're very unhappy about that."
He said Tianmu campaigners have estimated that Mu has made four billion yuan (U.S.$149 million) personally out of land and property sales to developers over the past three decades.
"This is a classic example of a low-ranking official making big money out of corruption," Chen said.
Villagers not informed
Villagers said Mu made the land and property "sales" without informing or consulting the village committee.
"This is collective farmland we are talking about, held by the whole village, and yet he just takes it over and sells it whenever he chooses," a third Tianmu resident also surnamed Mu told RFA on Wednesday.
"The farmland has been carved up into several chunks, one of which is held by him to build a factory, while others have been sold off to developers," Mu said.
"Still others have been used for national-level infrastructure projects."
He said villagers had yet to see compensation for several of the land parcels taken over by Mu Xiangyou, in spite of regulations requiring it.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to go after both high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies" in a nationwide anti-graft campaign that recently widened to include 14 generals in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
But the party regards any popular involvement in the anti-corruption campaign as highly sensitive and potentially threatening, and has already sentenced a number of activists to jail for calling on officials to reveal their wealth.
Land grabs and forced evictions linked to lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments trigger thousands of mass protests across China every year, although many result in violent suppression and the detention of the main organizers.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.