HONG KONG—Officials in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have effectively cordoned off Taishi village and stepped up a pressure campaign to keep its elected chief in office, in spite of a long campaign by residents to remove him amid corruption allegations.
Government cadres from Panyu district, of which Taishi village is part, had been intensifying their "ideological work" with villagers in the hope of cancelling a key meeting Oct. 7 at which the village committee is scheduled to decide on whether to remove village chief Chen Jinsheng, a resident of Taishi told RFA's Cantonese service.
"A lot of local leaders are carrying out ideological work with villagers in the hope of stopping the campaign to remove the village chief," one resident said. "They are using every method they can find, including using connections with families and friends, to exert pressure."
He said the Taishi villagers had planned to travel to Beijing to make an official complaint to national-level authorities, but that police were keeping too tight a watch on their movements.
"They have every route out of the village, to Panyu district, all the way to Guangzhou, under guard," the villager said. "How could we get through undetected?"
Villagers have repeatedly accused officials of carrying out a 'white terror' campaign to prevent the committee from voting on Chen's removal.
All seven representatives chosen by villagers in a snap re-election earlier this month had already tendered their resignations by last week after they reported anonymous telephone threats.
The villagers are being taken out for meals at local restaurants in an attempt to create factional strife among the people here.
Local officials have intensified their campaign to scare off further opposition to Chen since then, villagers said.
“The villagers are being taken out for meals at local restaurants in an attempt to create factional strife among the people here,” the villager told RFA reporter Mei Kin-kwan in an interview last week. He said government officials were also running a signature campaign to keep incumbent village chief Chen in office.
“Of course anyone who works for a government department is immediately going to worry about losing their job, and be frightened into line.”
State-run media have portrayed the case as a shining example of how grass-roots village democracy in China can serve the interests of the people.
And a popular discussion of the Taishi events on the Yannan.com online bulletin board was closed down earlier this week.
Guangzhou-based lawyer Tang Jinling, one of a number of prominent lawyers, academics, and rights activists following events in Taishi, in Guangzhou’s Panyu district, told RFA:
“If any money changes hands during these meals, then it would be classed as vote-rigging, and the villagers can report it to the civil affairs department and to the police.”
But he said purely taking people out for a meal was a rather grey area of activity.
“It’s not necessarily vote-rigging. But the township government, as the next level up from Taishi village, should maintain an objective stance. It’s not appropriate for them to be collecting signatures on behalf of one faction when the removal of an elected village chief is at issue,” Tang said.
The local newspaper, state-run Panyu Daily reported Sept. 21 that government officials had found nothing out of order in the Taishi village accounts, which were forcibly removed from village government offices by the authorities in spite of calls for a transparent audit.
If any money changes hands during these meals, then it would be classed as vote-rigging, and the villagers can report it to the civil affairs department and to the police.
The Taishi standoff, widely seen by Chinese scholars and the legal profession as a test of local governments’ commitment to village democracy and rule of law, began in July following a 100 million yuan (U.S.$12 million) land deal involving more than 2,000 mu (133 hectares) of village land.
Villagers and their lawyers said accounting procedures around the sale were not transparent, and they suspected Chen of embezzling public funds.
In clashes ealier this month, riot police ended a hunger strike and fired water cannon on protesters, many of them elderly.
With 27 of their number still detained, and prominent rights lawyer Guo Feixiong “disappeared” in recent days after helping them prepare their case, villagers hastily convened a meeting to field their own candidates instead of those they saw as tainted by corruption allegations surrounding Chen.
Villagers said the authorities were using intimidation tactics with Guo’s disappearance and continuing detention. Guo is currently being held in a detention center in Panyu district, his lawyer confirmed to RFA's Cantonese service Monday.
Lawyers and academics have called on the government to release those still detained following the clashes between riot police and hunger strikers.
“Even though the villagers have succeeded in getting candidates they want elected to the election committee, this affair will not be concluded by the election alone,” Tang, the Guangzhou-based lawyer, told RFA’s Cantonese service.
“If we are really to see a happy outcome, then the authorities will have to release the villagers who are still detained. Are they going to be released? Are their rights going to be protected? That is a much bigger benchmark,” Tang said.
A women’s rights activist and Chinese professor at Guangzhou’s prestigious Zhongshan University earlier this month wrote an open letter to Premier Wen Jiabao calling for his intervention on behalf of the Taishi villagers.
“I believe that if the premier really knew what was going on here, he would be very unhappy about it. I am worried that he really doesn’t know. When he was in Guangdong, the local papers only reported the positive side,” Ai Xiaoming told RFA in a recent interview.
“These actions are unacceptable according to national law, and unacceptable according to reason. How can you harm 80-year-olds?” Ai said, referring to the advanced age of some hunger-strikers and detainees.
She highlighted reports of 90-year-old Taishi protester Feng Zhen, who broke some bones during the clashes that ended the hunger strike Sept. 12, and was unable to get out of bed. The clashes have been given the official label of “illegal assembly.”
“It would be a good thing if the premier were able to release those detained so they can pass a happy mid-Autumn festival,” Ai said.
Meanwhile, rights activist Li Jian said the snap decision to hold a replacement election was illegal, and effectively removed the need to audit the village accounts, a key demand of the entire campaign.
“If you don’t talk about removing the village chief, but re-elections, then you sidestep the whole removal process, and the need to look into the village accounts. So then the whole affair is covered up,” Li told RFA.
Citizens’ rights activist and lawyer Gao Zhisheng said the Taishi campaign merely highlighted the perversion of the democratic process under China’s Communist Party, where state power is seen as being entirely vested in the Party, flowing from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom.
“Democratic elections should be a beautiful thing,” Gao told RFA. “But as soon as they are taken over by dark forces they become an absolute nightmare.”
Original reporting in Cantonese by Mei Kin-kwan and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.