Guardian reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt was trying to learn more about the battle over villager’s rights taking place in Taishi village in southern China. He learned far more than he’d wanted when a mob of uniformed men dragged Lu Banglie, an activist working on human rights issues in rural China, from his taxicab and beat him into unconsciousness, possibly to death, as Joffe-Walt watched. He offers a harrowing account of the experience, riddled with his sense of guilt at not attempting to intervene.
While Taishi’s gotten almost no attention in Western media, it’s becoming an increasingly complicated battleground over rural democracy in China. In July, a land deal involving 330 acres of village land, sold for $12 million dollars, sparked controversy as villagers accused the village chief of pocketing some of the proceeds instead of distributing them in shares to villagers. Villagers responded by putting together a recall petition and attempting to oust the chief.
And then it got complicated. As activists focused on the rights of rural Chinese began coming to Taishi to help the villagers in their case, huge numbers of police came to the village – over a thousand, in riot gear, by one account. There are reports of supporters of the petition being attacked by “thugs”, and evidence of strong government intimidation and pressure to withdraw the petition. According to a translation of a Sing Tao story on EastSouthWestNorth, as of October 1st, a sufficient number of villagers had withdrawn their support for the petition that it was no longer legally valid. That said, the repercussions continue – lawyer Guo Feixiong, who was working with villagers who supported the petition, was arrested and is being detained in regional capital Panyu, where he is on a hunger strike. And Radio France Internationale reporter Abel Segretin and Malaysian reporter Leu Siew Ying were beaten recently when they attempted to enter the town and file a report, according to the South China Morning Post. (The story is titled “They were working themselves into a frenzy”, but is accesible to subscribers only.)
(Roland Soong’s EastSouthNorthWest blog has an excellent and comprehensive timeline of the events surrounding Taishi.)
There have evidently been efforts by Chinese authorities to silence discussion about Taishi. Popular online message board service Yannan carried a number of posts about Taishi, including a long account of events in the village by Professor Ai Xiaoming. According to Radio Free Asia, the site first removed all posts related to Taishi, then closed entirely, with the message: “Yannan will be undergoing a complete clean-up and rectification, and its relaunch will be notified at a later date. We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience”.
It’s possible that the events of Taishi have generated such a strong and sudden crackdown because the village chief’s corruption implicated much more powerful political figures. But it’s also likely that some government authorities are deeply threatened by the idea that rural people’s groups could stand in the way of economic development to promote local interests, be they fiscal, environmental or cultural. How the Taishi situation plays out may say a good deal about the future of democracy in China. And whether or not the world at large pays attention to stories like Joffe-Walt’s says a great deal about whether the global community will challenge China on human rights issues or allow intimidation, detention and thuggery to prevent an outbreak of grassroots democracy.
My colleague Rebecca MacKinnon is following this story closely and will likely have good updates as more information becomes available.