October 19, 2005
Silver lining in the Taishi cloud

Whether it is directly related to the recent events in Taishi or not, at least there is the appearance of something good coming out of the whole thing. The SCMP:

Guangdong authorities have pledged to comb through the accounts of every town, village and village group in the province to clear up financial irregularities at the grassroots level...Villagers and farmers lodged about 150,000 petitions with provincial authorities in the first eight months of this year, most relating to alleged corruption over rural land acquisition, problems in village committee elections, and land and forest ownership disputes, the News Express reported.

"These problems have encroached on the interests of the masses, sharpened social inequities, damaged the stability of grass-roots regimes and undermined the reputation of the party and the government," the newspaper quoted the inspection committee as saying.

Guangdong has also promised to improve the way towns and villages are managed, particularly in terms of finances and cadre supervision. The changes mean party and government officials will not be allowed to have part-time jobs or receive payments from state-owned, collective or private enterprises..."Chinese villages lack professional accounting personnel and a standardised financial management system," Professor Xu said.

Dang Guoying , a rural affairs analyst, said the root of rural financial corruption was the village committees' excessive power over finances.

The SCMP's got substantial coverage of the Taishi incident, including a good summary by Leu Siew Ying, a fawning piece on Lu Banglie, an op-ed by Peter Goff on the dangers for Chinese citizens working with foreigners, a point already well made by ESWN last week and a piece by Simon Parry also on the constraints of mainland reporting and the flaws of the international press, starring Jonathan Joffe-Walt and Lu Banglie. While I often have a go at the SCMP, this time they are doing a good job of covering an important story. The articles are reproduced below the jump.

From village protest to national flashpoint

The scourge of corruption has turned Taishi's experiment in grass-roots democracy into a display of people power.

Taishi is a tiny village in the richest and seemingly most open province on the mainland and yet a legitimate attempt by its residents to oust their chief for corruption has been crushed with the help of gangsters. The crackdown exposes the ambiguity of the central government's stance on democracy and underscores its fear that Taishi might have a domino effect in a region riddled with land-related corruption.

But Taishi is, at most, a localised corruption scandal that permeated the township government and is unlikely to implicate anyone in Guangzhou, much less in Guangdong or far away Beijing.

With a population of 2,000, Taishi is a 45-minute drive south of Guangzhou. Once a model village, its inhabitants complain of poverty, even though bustling shops, busy factories, thriving sugar cane farms and banana plantations stand on land they used to farm.

Elderly women have been the hardest hit. They are unable to support themselves from the dividend income from leased properties and farmland, and have been forced to eke out a living by scavenging.

The villagers blame their plight on Chen Jinsheng , who was re-elected as village chief in April. Mr Chen garnered 60 per cent of the votes, but the poll came before allegations that he had embezzled funds from the village collective.

On July 29 they launched a campaign to remove him from office by popular vote. During a three-month stand-off that followed, local authorities, using more than 1,000 police and water cannon, threw villagers in jail, seized ledger books and paid thugs to beat activists, lawyers and foreign reporters.

They rejected the recall petition, then announced it had been accepted, only to announce soon afterwards that the villagers had given up their action. The people are now being held hostage in their own village.

Sources with close contacts with villagers say groups of cadres fanned out to visit each of the 500 households to make them sign the withdrawal document.

"Every household has somebody who has been arrested. They were promised that their family members would be released if they signed, if not, they would go to jail for three to 10 years. The villagers are realistic, so they signed," one source said.

The family of Feng Weinan , one of the leaders arrested, received a notice saying power and water supplies to their apartment would be cut off. Other villagers were told they would lose their jobs, their children would not be able to go to school or they would be harassed by thugs.

"Their wives were crying, so the men had to sign," said Lu Banglie , an activist who advised the villagers on recall procedures.

Mr Lu said cadres promised a household of four or five voters about half a hectare of land if they would spy for the village committee and help keep Mr Chen in power.

The villagers were also told that lawyers and reporters had wrecked their economy and they would get no dividends this year. Previously, the committee that manages village assets paid each villager 1,000 yuan a year and claimed that Taishi was in debt.

A propaganda official from Yuwotou, the town that administers Taishi, told two foreign journalists that 396 villagers signed the withdrawal statement voluntarily after an audit of village accounts cleared Mr Chen. Only 188 refused to sign.

Giving the reporters a copy of the Guangzhou Daily, he said: "Everything we want to say is here. You can also read about it in the Southern Metropolis News and other newspapers. There is no need to report on this any more. We will not give any more interviews."

The official statement said the recall petition was legal, a move that analysts said gave the authorities justification to break the blockade of the village office and seize account books allegedly incriminating Mr Chen on the grounds that the villagers had broken the law and obstructed village government.

The next move was to identify the "black hands" behind the unrest: Mr Lu, Yang Maodong - a prolific writer and activist better known as Guo Feixiong - and Ai Xiaoming , a gender studies expert at Sun Yat-sen University, who was interested in the involvement of women in the Taishi struggle.

Mr Yang has been taken into custody and Mr Lu was beaten up, but Professor Ai is still free, though her website has been shut down.

The village itself is guarded by mercenaries who are paid 100 yuan a day to beat up any foreign visitors, while the local media has been muzzled.

Analysts believe that Taishi started off as a test case for grass-roots democracy because Premier Wen Jiabao said last month that if people could manage a village, they could manage a township in several years and that would be "an evolving system".

Pro-government scholar Fan Yafeng drew attention to Taishi's significance, strengthening the argument, and yet a local government source said there had been no directive to push for grass-roots democracy.

Cheng Li, professor of government at New York-based Hamilton College, said the central government had called for an experiment and so could not crack down on it.

"I don't think we can put it down as a crackdown, but they think there is something wrong with the experiment. I don't go as far as to say that they are ready for democracy," he said. "They want to push for democracy but they want to be their own monitor."

In the first eight months of this year, the Guangdong discipline commission received 150,000 complaints about corruption, cadre misconduct or election irregularities, an average of seven per village in the province.

"I've heard that many villagers went to Taishi to learn from their experience," one mainland expert in grass-roots democracy said. "If Taishi succeeded, they would do the same."

Mr Yang, on the lookout for opportunities in the Pearl River Delta, saw the legal issues in the land deals and was able to persuade villagers they had a problem.

Taishi captured international interest because Mr Yang had an action plan to use passive resistance, hunger strikes and the foreign media to raise the profile of the dispute.

The timing was opportune because the director of Yuwotou, which administers the village, had just been reassigned to another town, leaving a young deputy to hold the fort.

From a run-of-the-mill attempt to recall a village headman, the situation in Taishi deteriorated to such an extent that Beijing stepped in and designated it an important political incident.

"It has acquired the same status as the Sars outbreak in 2003 and the Falun Gong," one scholar said.

But Guangdong, living up to its reputation as a renegade province, chose to maintain a degree of independence, which might help explain the handling of Taishi.

Despite the crackdown, Mr Lu described Taishi as a success.

"Taishi shows the world the ugly side of local government and teaches villagers the value of their votes," he said. "In the past, they thought that whoever you vote for, it makes no difference. They sold their votes for 100 yuan or a pack of cigarettes."

Mr Lu believes that the Taishi villagers will prevail against their village chief in the next election in three years' time. And he predicts that if the party is supportive, grass-roots democracy could be a reality in three to five years. "If not, it will take 20 years."

Dangers of working with foreigners

Beyond the daily drill of research, press conferences and interviews, foreign journalists in the mainland are inadvertently mired in a menacing world of intrigue and espionage. But the danger is, for the most part, not directed at them, but rather at the people who co-operate with them as they gather news. The mainland is not the world's greatest fan of media scrutiny, to say the least. The foreign press corps have always had to deal with the likes of none-too-secret agents on their tail, phone taps, bugged offices and local employees who are encouraged to operate as government spies.

All that is still in place. But the methods of surveillance have become more sophisticated - if not always more subtle. A European journalist on a recent reporting trip to the central provinces was using her mobile phone to try to track down a local activist. While she was talking, a voice broke into the conversation and scolded her for sticking her nose into local affairs.

Another journalist tells of how she interviewed a source in a noisy local restaurant one evening. The next day her mobile rang and she heard the last voice she expected: her own. The call was a recording of her conversation in the restaurant. She has no idea if it was some kind of bounce-back blip in the hi-tech spying game, or whether it was spooks wanting to let her know they were on her case. Either way, it was a jolting reminder of the system's invisible eyes and ears.

The latest technology that is pleasing spies and jealous spouses alike is a chip that can secretly turn a mobile phone into a microphone. Security experts say the phone's software is adjusted so that when the phone is called from a certain number, it will answer automatically without ringing, vibrating or lighting up - essentially turning it into a bugging device.

All this, and the many other hi-tech eavesdropping and tracking devices now available, can spell danger for the sources who talk to journalists and the Chinese people who work with them. Foreign reporters here are sometimes hassled, impeded from doing their work, forced to sign self-criticisms and, in some cases, threatened or even roughed up.

But it is very rare that their lives are endangered or their freedom jeopardised. For Chinese it is a very different matter. On any kind of sensitive issue sources, news assistants, photographers, support staff and the like run a far greater risk of being beaten, imprisoned or worse, for helping foreign reporters. Their attackers are often thugs who have been hired to do the dirty work.

This reality places a "huge burden" on journalists based on the mainland, according to Melinda Liu, Newsweek magazine's Beijing bureau chief and president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China. "It is a very big issue for us," she said, as before doing any story they must first evaluate who is going to be involved and assess what danger they might be exposed to.

"We have to figure out if it's worth taking the risk," she said. "There are some stories we just won't do because we feel it's too dangerous. But if we were to be 100 per cent careful in every case, we would simply not be able to do our jobs."

In many cases, the Chinese involved are prompted to take risks by a desire to get the information out, knowing it would never be published in China. The call could only be made on a "gut feeling, on a case-by-case basis", Ms Liu said, and no one could predict how situations would develop. "Sometimes you are going to make the wrong call. It is a huge dilemma."

And if it all means some controversial stories go unreported, it is a dilemma that seems to suit the more opaque elements of the state perfectly well.

Life's been tough for injured activist from the very start

Activist Lu Banglie's savage beating in Taishi village was not the first time he found himself in a life-threatening situation. Threats to Mr Lu's life started even before he was born, with his impoverished mother trying repeatedly to end her pregnancy.

"My mother was 48 or 49 when she conceived me and she tried several times to abort me but she was stopped. We were very poor and she didn't think that at her age she could raise another child," Mr Lu said.

"When she delivered me, she let me fall to the ground. She just sat in her chair and refused to pick me up. It was her sister-in-law who picked me up."

Mr Lu, a boyish-looking 34-year-old divorcee with a seven-year-old daughter he hardly ever sees, has been threatened on many occasions but remains unfazed. He has been hacked and beaten unconscious, but his experience in Taishi was the worst because he was knocked out for a day.

"If I was afraid, I wouldn't be doing this," he said. "I bought insurance before I became an activist because I knew it would be dangerous. I pay 444 yuan a year for a policy amounting to 180,000 yuan. In the event of my death, the money will go to my daughter and my mother," he said.

He says he limits his time with his daughter to shield her from the dangers of his mission.

His own mother came to love her youngest child and found enough money to put him through two years of senior middle school.

Growing up, he saw how hard the peasants' lot was and became a victim of fraud himself when he tried to secure a contract to mine sand.

"I was very angry. Peasants lead a hard life and cadres not only do not care but lie about the real situation," he said. "My anger burned inside me and I wanted to do something for the laobaixing [ordinary people] so I started going to Beijing to petition, to give them feedback about the reality and to ask them to lighten peasants' burden."

A year or so later he returned empty handed and frustrated to Hubei , but the people he met while in Beijing made him realise that petitions were not the way to go.

He later met people from China Reform Magazine and attended training courses organised by the magazine and began to consider running for election so that he could better serve the peasants.

"I thought I could use the Villages' Organisation Law to push for democracy and economic development," he said. "With this in mind, I ran for election but I was unsuccessful because the election was rigged."

Mr Lu changed tack again and organised the ousting of the headman of his native village, Baoyuesi, in 2003.

He succeeded, and took over as village chief. A few months later, overwhelmed by the village's debts, he stepped down.

He went to Beijing again this spring to consult experts on ways to push forward rural development, but after again coming up empty handed moved south to Huizhou , where he found a job in a packaging factory.

In July, he was again unsuccessful in another attempt to seek inspiration in Beijing and returned to Guangzhou to find a job.

It was in Guangzhou that he ran into Yang Maodong , an activist better known as Guo Feixiong , whom he had met in Beijing, at a dinner and was told about the problems of Taishi.

"We talked about Taishi and decided to recall the headman," he said. Mr Lu said he would not return to Taishi in the near future, but would take time to recuperate from his injuries and reconsider his strategy.

Here lies the truth

With only a bruise on his right elbow to show for the beating he was given by thugs in Guangdong, pro-democracy activist Lu Banglie is in a forgiving mood towards the British journalist who told the world he had been mutilated and left for dead. "He seemed young and I don't think he was very experienced," said Mr Lu, 34, as he recovered from his ordeal with friends in Hubei province . "He was caught up in a very frightening situation. In those circumstances it is understandable that he got it wrong."

Benjamin Joffe-Walt's report - splashed on the front page of Britain's The Guardian newspaper on Monday last week - described in graphic detail how Mr Lu was apparently killed by a group of five to six men in Taishi, Guangdong, the scene of rural unrest.

Mr Lu had been accompanying Joffe-Walt and his translator when they were stopped and Mr Lu, a legislator from Hubei who has helped villagers try to fight for their legal rights, was dragged out of the taxi after being recognised by the mob.

In a shocking report, the 25-year-old reporter said he saw Mr Lu lying on the ground "his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted ... the ligaments in his neck were broken". It seemed a brutal indictment of the abuses of power in rural China - until Mr Lu appeared in his home province, very much alive and without any serious injuries, on the same day the sensational report in The Guardian was published.

He had been beaten unconscious, and bundled into a car and driven back to his home province, hundreds of kilometres away. Mr Lu has since undergone medical examinations and internal scans that reveal no lasting injuries.

So how could the journalist have misjudged the situation so gravely? Looking at copies of the newspaper's reports, Mr Lu said: "I was wearing a red shirt and it was dark. Maybe he saw the colour of my shirt and thought it was blood. As for my eye popping out, perhaps he just saw the reflection of the torches being shone in my eyes.

"His report is obviously false, but I believe it is the government's fault that things like this happen. If the government allowed journalists to report what is going on in these villages, these kind of false reports wouldn't appear. If they let people go freely into these places, people would know the truth."

Joffe-Walt's employers have been less generous in their appraisal of the report filed by the American former high school teacher who began working as the newspaper's Shanghai correspondent last month.

In a blunt article by the newspaper's own ombudsman on Monday, the newspaper said Joffe-Walt had been recalled to London and examined by a psychotherapist, who had concluded that at the time of writing, he had "lost touch with reality".

The article spoke of the reporter's "grave flaws" and "gross errors and exaggerations" and said his report had "threatened the credibility and integrity of The Guardian's reporting in China".

It emphasised Joffe-Walt's relative inexperience, saying: "His main experience has been gained in six months working for a South Africa newspaper ... and an overlapping period as a stringer [for] a British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph."

The story of how the paths of two idealistic young men from hugely different backgrounds - one a western journalist and the other a Chinese activist - came to cross with dramatic results in the south of China is an intriguing and unlikely one.

As recently as 2003, Joffe-Walt was working as a high school teacher in Canada. He went to Baghdad as a human shield, one of a group of anti-war activists who tried to put themselves in danger's way to stop a US invasion.

Afterwards, he told his hometown paper in the US, the Philadelphia Daily News, that the experience was "very stressful" but that he would be prepared to go back and put himself in harm's way for the anti-war cause.

Joffe-Walt chose not to return, it seems, but instead headed for Africa, where he began a new career as a newspaper reporter, working first for South Africa's This Day newspaper and then as a stringer across Africa for The Sunday Telegraph.

He filed harrowing stories from across the continent, visiting flashpoints including Darfur and picking up an impressive brace of awards in the process - young journalist of the year from the Foreign Press Association in London and CNN African print journalist of the year in June this year.

Joffe-Walt's transformation from high school teacher to frontline war reporter took place at the same time as a sea change in Mr Lu's life. A farmer in Hubei, Mr Lu became increasingly disillusioned with the abuses of power in rural China and decided to fight for the reduction of taxes on poor farmers.

As his marriage broke down and his wife took their daughter, now seven, to live in a new home more than 20km away, Mr Lu became increasingly involved in his political activity, taking advantage of rural reforms to win a seat in 2003 as a provincial legislator.

"I got involved in politics because I saw how the lives of farmers are so hard and so bitter, and the local governments and village committees are so unreasonable," he said. "I wanted to change it."

He had been immersed in the fight for villager rights in Taishi for weeks before he met Joffe-Walt, two Saturdays ago. Standing in for The Guardian's China correspondent, Jonathan Watts, the young reporter went to Guangdong to report on the unrest.

They spent only a few hours together before the drama on a roadside near Taishi.

Joffe-Walt claims he asked Mr Lu to get out of the car three times before they stopped at a security roadblock, but Mr Lu said: "I reassured the reporter I would be OK. I told him I have a big life inside me ... I told him he didn't need to worry about my safety."

Reflecting on what happened to him, Mr Lu said: "I don't believe they were trying to kill me, because if I had died it would have caused a big controversy. They just wanted to scare me so I wouldn't go back again. But I will go back. I am not afraid."

Joffe-Walt returned to Shanghai the day after the attack, arriving just in time to catch the end of an opening party for his office - set up with a group of other reporters working for newspapers overseas and nicknamed "the writers' commune" by fellow journalists.

It would appear that he filed the report late on that Sunday night, Shanghai time. The Guardian said it arrived "only an hour before deadline, which left little time for interaction" and described his original copy as "3,500 words in a graphic stream-of-consciousness narrative".

After the story broke, events moved quickly. Joffe-Walt was summoned to a meeting in Hong Kong with The Guardian's diplomatic editor, Ewan MacAskill, who was flown out from London to interview him. Watts was meanwhile recalled from holiday and sent to interview Mr Lu and arrange for a medical examination.

Joffe-Walt was then flown back to London where The Guardian said he "expressed repeated apologies for what he had done and its implications for The Guardian, and indeed for the pro-democracy movement in China".

Journalists in Shanghai were meanwhile bemused at the saga of the young journalist who had only just arrived in the country and now appeared to be making one of the quickest exits on record, a day after his welcoming party.

One senior Shanghai-based journalist, who asked not to be named, said: "One of his colleagues said he had a flair for the dramatic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a journalist. But it seems that in this case he may have gone a bit too far."

Whether Joffe-Walt has a future with The Guardian remains to be seen. Monday's article announced that the British newspaper, which prides itself on its high standard of journalism, has to protect its own reputation but also has a "duty of care" for its young reporter.

What becomes of Joffe-Walt is a matter of relative indifference for Mr Lu. Although Joffe-Walt has been under a psychotherapist in London and suffered from what The Guardian describes as "traumatic distress", Mr Lu is facing up to much more real day-to-day dangers on the mainland.

After evading the security police who have him under surveillance to drive three hours to a meeting for this interview, Mr Lu said of his ordeal: "I am angry at what happened to me, but not surprised. It is something that cannot be avoided in the struggle for democracy in China. It is a price I have to pay."

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:16
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October 17, 2005
Forests and trees

And I'm back.

Thank you to all the guest posters during my break. As usual, a wide variety of posts that will likely result in top billing for some strange Google searches. I particularly like this blog being referred to as "semi-formal". I was aiming for "black tie", but whatever.

As I left for holiday the now infamous Guardian article had just hit the press. In short, the journalist in question went to Taishi with a human rights advocate, thought he saw the human rights advocate bashed to death, wrote about it only for the same advocate turn up with some minor injuries in his home village very much alive and well and reading up on Mark Twain. Bingfeng has summarised the resulting uproar, with accusations that this reporting has damaged the cause of democracy in China and far more besides. As one commenter noted, the split has seemingly come down to those who are reflex anti-CCP and those reflex anti-mainstream media (MSM), this being one of those rare cases where it is not the same thing.

And yet all this debate is missing the major point.

For all the pretence that China's "new" leadership was all about grass-roots change, about closing the rural economic gap, about weeding out corruption, about making government responsive to people, Taishi has clearly demonstrated how far from reality this vision remains. There is no doubt that China's leadership in Beijing, even while occupied with the recent smackdown plenum, know about Taishi. This could have been a chance for a genuine, citizen driven democratic experiment. It was sufficiently small-scale, the mitigating circumstances in place. It was completely controllable and scalable should it have proved a success. While some of us have been blogging about it for months, finally some mainstream media sources cottoned onto the potential story and chased it. And then came the (pardon the pun) road smash. And now the collective energies of various sources of China-related information have been focussed on what a bumbling journo did or didn't do and what it does or doesn't mean. There are 1.3 billion people in China who have no idea about this debate. It's meaningless to them. But the potential result of the Taishi experiment, if it had gone another way, could have greatly affected many millions of those people, including the leadership.

So let's refocus on the real villians of the piece: who decided to stop the Taishi experiment before it could start? Why? And why do forked tongues remain so fashionable?

Related reading

  • Running Dog on Taishi and the woes of Government explains why Beijing prefers vested interests and corrupt local governments retain control.
  • ESWN is on top form with centripedal and centrifugal forces in China, a contradiction Taishi could have helped solve but instead will make worse.
  • Asiapundit defends the Guardian journalist, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, and his actions.
  • Rebecca MacKinnon hits the nail firmly on the head:
    Will Chinese netizens be successfully manipulated into foreigner-bashing as an acceptable alternative to communist party-bashing?
    Her next post is even better, noting that most of the Western media isn't interested in the Taishi story now that Lu Banglie turned up OK. Sadly the same is mostly true of the wider blogosphere as well. The crucial issue is what Taishi represents, but most media cannot seemingly view its impact without the frame of "authoritarian government beats human rights advocate and journalist". Forget about the "authoritarian government quashes constitutionally valid recall process to preserve vested interests" angle. And why does that matter? Because like it or not, if it's not in the media, it's not in the forefront of (Western) politicians' and most voters' minds. It's forests and trees again.
  • Sun Bin reports that there have been 52 village recall elections, like Taishi tried. He's more optimistic about the potential outcome for the future.
  • ESWN has the full chronology of Taishi, and has filled it in with more details filling in some of the blanks. He also comments on the Guardian debacle, and has the translation of well-known Chinese blogger Anti's anti-Joffe-Walt post.
  • Best of all, in a related post, ESWN talks about the dangers of working with Western journalists in China. Maybe that's the real lesson of this sorry episode.

Updated (10/17)

The Guardian's readers' editor (what does the regular editor do then?) defends Mr. Joffe-Walt's actions, saying he's been given a good talking to and packed off to a therapist until the heat dies down (pardon the pun). One could ask what kind of training the Guardian gives its 25 year-old journalists when dispatched to places such as China, where media freedom isn't quite what it is elsewhere. One could ask why the Guardian published a clearly potentially inflammatory article when there was little time for interaction with the [news] desk. One could ask if the Guardian staff know abuot the Stockholm Syndrome when we are told they have all developed some sympathy for Joffe-Walt, despite the fact that his report had threatened the credibility and integrity of the Guardian's reporting in China. Mr Joffe-Walt has expressed repeated apologies for what he had done and its implications for the Guardian, and indeed for the pro-democracy movement in China, and he had lost touch with reality when he filed his report.

Ian Mayes concludes The Guardian clearly has to protect its reputation. It also recognises a duty of care to Mr Joffe-Walt. The two things are not incompatible. No, they're not incompatible at all. Where the Guardian has fallen down was throwing a 25 year old novice into one of the more dangerous reporting assignments without adequate care or supervision. If we're sharing out blame, it's the Guardian itself that needs to shoulder a significant part of the responsibility. Don't hold your breath.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 13:35
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» Winds of Change.NET links with: China, democracy and a place called Taishi

October 10, 2005
Taishi: a case study of repression (Updated)

The wash-up from Taishi*, a village where a genuine attempt at grass roots democracy was unceremoniously suppressed. ESWN reports that a Guardian journalist investigating the village was reportedly bashed at Taishi by Government heavies. Also, yesterday, Radio France's Abel Segrein and South China Morning Post's Liu Xiaoyin were assaulted by more than twenty people. A colleague of Abel Segrein, Pierre Haski, has a blog in French with more details on Abel Segrein's visit to Taishi (a reasonable Google translation in English is here).

ESWN has an updated chronology of all the events at Taishi.

What happened in Taishi was incredibly significant but it has not been widely reported in the Western media. Why? Because the Western media are effectively barred from reporting it, through violence and threats. Welcome to media management, CCP style.

Update (10/10)

Today's SCMP has Leu Siew Ying's first hand report of her visit and beating last Friday at Taishi and another report on a similar incident on Saturday: the detention of legislator Lu Banglie, a deputy to the Zhijiang People's Congress in Hubei province, on a visit to Taishi with Guardian newspaper reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt. I had spoken to Mr. Joffe-Walt on Saturday afternoon, before the incident had occurred. He was seeking to do an article on the real story behind Taishi.

When government thugs start detaining legislators and beating Western journalists, the alarms should be ringing at maximum volume. Kudos to Abel Segretin from RFI, Mr Joffe-Walt and Leu Siew Ying for persuing the story. As the saying goes, when there's beatings, there's a story.

* Link is to a newly established category containing all my Taishi related posts

"They were working themselves into a frenzy"

Radio France Internationale reporter Abel Segretin and I went to Taishi last Friday to find out why residents suddenly abandoned a bid to recall their village chief. During previous visits I had been detained twice - the windscreens and windows of my taxi were smashed by paid thugs. A lecturer and two lawyers had the same harrowing experience three weeks later, so I knew I had to be careful. Segretin and I agreed that we would not resist if caught, but we did not get any further than a roadblock set up by the local authorities. A few men with red armbands marked "security" forced us off our motorbikes. Straight away, another 20 people closed in on us - some wearing army camouflage - and asked for our identity papers. We asked them who they were and a well-dressed man said "villagers".

I told him I was not obliged to identify myself to anyone but the police. He said if we did not show him our identity papers he would leave and would not be able to control the others. He also revealed that he knew we had got out of a taxi in Shiqi to continue our journey by motorcycle.

The man then called police while Segretin asked why we could not enter the village. People started shouting, saying we had caused trouble for them and cost them their livelihoods. One tried to force us to sit down, while two others grabbed Segretin's forearms. When he pulled himself free, I could see red marks they had left. One man punched him in the waist and another whacked me across the head with a blow that sent me tumbling forward. Fortunately, I was wearing a broad-brimmed peasant's straw hat that cushioned the blow, so I was more shocked than hurt.

I was trembling and kept telling my colleague we had to leave. We tried to, but the men stopped us. I told him not to talk to them because the mood had turned very ugly and I could see that they were working themselves into a frenzy. I felt they were waiting for us to provoke them, and I was terrified that my companion would get badly beaten - and that I would be next.

I have reported on China for seven years and this was the first time I have been beaten, although I have been detained numerous times.

Legislator missing after being beaten near Taishi

A mainland legislator has disappeared after being dragged from his car and beaten on Saturday while travelling to Guangdong's strife-torn Taishi village with a journalist working for a British newspaper. The fate of Lu Banglie , deputy to the Zhijiang People's Congress in Hubei province , was last night unknown. Mr Lu had been advising Taishi residents on ways to oust unpopular village chief Chen Jinsheng , who has been accused of corruption, through electoral procedures.

Mr Lu had been travelling to Taishi with journalist Benjamin Joffe-Walt, who writes for The Guardian newspaper, and Joffe-Walt's mainland assistant when they were stopped at a roadblock. According to Jonathan Watts, Beijing correspondent for The Guardian, Joffe-Walt saw about five men in police uniforms and another five in army uniforms at the roadblock. However, the uniformed men soon left the area, leaving 20 to 30 men in civilian dress.

Watts said the men dragged Mr Lu from the car and started beating and kicking him, leaving the journalist and his assistant in the car. The 34-year-old activist was beaten unconscious, but the assault continued for another 10 minutes. "He was extremely badly beaten and we don't know if he is alive or dead. When Benjamin last saw him, he was lying unconscious by the side of the road," Watts said.

He believed the "thugs" were aware of Mr Lu's identity.

Joffe-Walt received "a few slaps" after he was removed from the car and had his mobile phone smashed. He was taken to a government office in Yuwoutou township and later released, Watts said. One internet report said Mr Lu was taken to Datong Hospital in Yuwoutou at about 11pm on Saturday, four hours after the beating. However, the hospital denied Mr Lu had been admitted. His mobile phone had been turned off.

Guo Yan - a lawyer representing activist Yang Maodong , who was detained for helping Taishi villagers in their struggle to remove Mr Chen - said: "Nobody has any news about [Mr Lu]."

Another lawyer representing Mr Yang, Gao Zhisheng , said he believed local authorities were collaborating with gangsters, and the violence was backed by city and even provincial authorities.

A journalist from the South China Morning Post and a French reporter were pushed around when they attempted to enter the village on Friday.

There have been several previous incidents in which reporters' cars were attacked and activists and lawyers detained and harassed when they tried to enter Taishi - making the village almost inaccessible to outsiders. Mr Lu is divorced and living with his 83-year-old mother. He was elected as chief of Baoyuesi village in Hubei after he ousted his predecessor in 2003.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:25
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October 01, 2005
The Chinese are revolting

The Economist writes about the growing number of "mass incidents" in China (no sub. req'd.). The article charts the explosion (pardon the pun) in riots and unrest in recent times on the back of growing wealth. It supports the thesis that as people have more personal possessions to defend, they will demand a greater say in how their lives are governed. The article is so good (dare I use the words must read? Yes, I dare) I've reproduce the whole thing below the jump, with some key parts highlighted:

THE Chinese government is getting increasingly twitchy about what officials say is a rapid growth in the number and scale of public protests. In its latest bid to quash them, this week it announced a sweeping ban on internet material that incites “illegal demonstrations”. Does China face serious instability? Probably not, for now at least. But in the longer term there are reasons to worry.

Quashing unrest has ever been a priority for the Communist Party. But over the past year or so it has put even more emphasis on tackling “mass incidents” as it calls the protests. These include a wide range of activity, from quiet sit-ins by a handful of people to all-in riots involving thousands. Almost always, they are sparked by local grievances, rather than antipathy to the party's rule. Yet China's most senior police official, Zhou Yongkang, has said that “actively preventing and properly handling” mass incidents was the main task for his Ministry of Public Security this year.

According to Mr Zhou, there were some 74,000 protests last year, involving more than 3.7m people; up from 10,000 in 1994 and 58,000 in 2003. Sun Liping, a Chinese academic, has calculated that demonstrations involving more than 100 people occurred in 337 cities and 1,955 counties in the first 10 months of last year. This amounted to between 120 and 250 such protests daily in urban areas, and 90 to 160 in villages. These figures are likely to be conservative. Chinese officials often try to cover up disturbances in their areas to avoid trouble with their superiors.

Under Mr Zhou's orders, police forces around the country this year have been merging existing anti-riot and counter-terrorist units into new “special police” tasked with responding rapidly to any mass protests that turn “highly confrontational”. Police officials say the existing units were too sluggish, too poorly trained and ill-coordinated to handle the upsurge in disturbances. The special police are to form small “assault squads” to tackle incidents involving violence or terrorism.

Only a few years ago, news of specific incidents seldom filtered out to foreign journalists. Now, thanks partly to a freer flow of information helped by the internet, by mobile telephony and, more rarely, by a slightly less constrained domestic press, hardly a week goes by without some protest coming to light. In June, thousands of people rioted in the town of Chizhou, in the eastern province of Anhui, after an altercation between a wealthy businessman and a cyclist over a minor traffic accident. In August, hundreds clashed with police in a land-related dispute that still simmers in the village of Taishi, in the southern province of Guangdong. Last month, the police in Shanghai detained dozens of people protesting against being evicted from their homes.

In some ways, this unrest makes China look a lot more like a normal developing country than the rigidly controlled system it was until the early 1990s. It is becoming increasingly common to encounter small-scale protests in Chinese cities that only a few years ago would have horrified order-obsessed cadres. An apartment block near your correspondent's home in Beijing has for weeks been scrawled with slogans protesting against the adjacent construction of a petrol station. “We want human rights,” says one. Residents say the police have not interfered, save to warn them not to protest during a big political gathering in the city.

Chinese officials often say that greater social unrest is normal in developing countries with a per capita GDP between $1,000 and $3,000. China's GDP per head surpassed $1,000 in 2003. But this appears to be little consolation. In August last year, President Hu Jintao appointed a high-level team, headed by Mr Zhou, to supervise the handling of protests and petitions. Official sources say Mr Hu dwelt on protests in a speech to party leaders in September 2004 and at the party's annual economic planning meeting in December. Late last year the party issued a document to senior officials telling them how to deal with unrest.

According to these sources, Mr Zhou's speeches are laced with warnings that political dissidents might try to manipulate local protests to put pressure on the party itself. This fear explains why the party has further squeezed non-governmental groups and dissidents in recent months. China Development Brief, a newsletter on Chinese civil society developments, reported that in recent weeks China's secret police had been interviewing staff of Chinese NGOs that receive foreign funding, as well as Chinese staff of foreign NGOs in China, about the purpose of their work. The government has suspended the registration of new international NGOs pending the outcome of these inquiries.

The party's dilemma is that much of the unrest is a product of the rapid economic growth that it is so keen to maintain. The outlook of many urban Chinese has changed profoundly since the 1990s as a result of the privatisation of hitherto heavily state-subsidised housing. Anxious to protect their new assets, property owners have increasingly clashed with developers, and their government backers, who have been trying to cash in on the resulting boom by erecting shopping malls and luxury housing. The expansion of cities has fuelled clashes with peasants whose land is needed for construction.

Some argue that these mostly isolated protests, if handled sensitively, could help China maintain overall stability by providing people with a way of venting frustrations. But Mao Shoulong, at Renmin University of China in Beijing, says the unrest is a sign that China lacks channels for people to air discontent in a more orderly fashion. Widespread corruption and an increasingly conspicuous wealth gap fuel a contempt for officialdom that can easily erupt into the kind of class-based rioting that occurred in Anhui in June.

And should the economy falter, urban China could be faced with the twin dangers of an angry middle class saddled with big mortgage commitments and declining property prices (a problem China has not yet had to face), as well as a big increase in the number of unemployed, who, along with unpaid pensioners, are the main participants in protests in those parts of the country left behind by the current boom. Widespread middle-class discontent, combined with blue-collar dissatisfaction, would be a much bigger threat to stability than China now faces.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 22:41
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It's really over for Taishi

A few days back the SCMP reported that the hoped for democratic revolution in the village of Taishi was quashed. Today's SCMP fleshes out the details of how effectively and comprehensively the authorities have won in stamping out this potential change:

Authorities in Panyu, Guangdong, have officially declared an end to the three-month struggle by Taishi villagers to exercise their civil rights and unseat their village chief. Both the Guangzhou Daily and the Panyu Daily published official statements yesterday saying that the villagers had withdrawn their application to remove village chief Chen Jinsheng .

The statement said 396 of the 584 villagers who had earlier signed a removal motion had withdrawn their signatures. It said the villagers now believed Mr Chen was not corrupt and that a township government investigation had found no evidence of misconduct by him. The Panyu Daily said "some irresponsible media" had "stirred up" the dispute, and that district officials had found no truth to the allegations against Mr Chen, and made "no discovery of any officials who have harmed the interests of the public for personal gain".

Villagers in Taishi began their efforts to remove Mr Chen in July. They alleged that he had misused village funds, and that evidence was contained in account books kept in the village office. However, officials seized the account books last month during a confrontation between villagers who opposed Mr Chen and police. About 16 people, including lawyer Yang Maodong - better known as Guo Feixiong - were still in police custody, Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling said.
Village leaders who took part in the protests against Mr Chen were not available for comment yesterday, and the few villagers contacted either said they had no knowledge of the latest development or declined to comment.

Discussions of the Taishi incident were deleted yesterday on at least two online forums. Zhang Yaojie , a Beijing scholar who has kept a close watch on the incident, said that when vested local interests felt threatened, they would do everything they could to silence their  opponents. "It once again proves that all so-called `grass-roots democracies' are just a hoax. Villagers obey the law, and what awaits them is punishment," he said referring to the villagers still in detention. "If a village can't achieve democracy, how can a country? If public power can't be checked, what can we do? There is nothing we can do."
But Mr Zhang, who had already foreseen Taishi's failure, said the authorities could not prevent similar disputes emerging. "There will be a second and a third Taishi village and one by one they will fail. But one day they will succeed - when there is institutional change to the system," he said.

Sun Yat-sen University professor Ai Xiaoming , who has published an open letter urging Premier Wen Jiabao to intervene, said she was neither surprised, nor disappointed. "Democracy cannot be achieved in just days. And we shouldn't put all our hopes for democracy on the villagers of Taishi and expect them to do it for us. The villagers have done what they could do. Besides being respectful, we ought to show a degree of understanding about the difficulties they faced."

Calling on the authorities to release the detained villagers, Professor Ai said the villagers' efforts would not go to waste. "People will continue to think about and discuss these issues," she said.

Chalk this up as another victory for authoritarianism, corruption, business as usual, suppresion of free speech and everything that's wrong with "New China". And lest you think Hong Kong is immune, a brief example of the more subtle suppression of free speech in the Big Lychee today, also courtesy the SCMP:

A hotel's last-minute cancellation yesterday of a conference room booking for a forum on mainland politics was condemned by the event's organiser, which accused the venue of giving in to political pressure from Beijing. A spokeswoman for the Epoch Times newspaper, Amy Chu Tung-pan, said the Conrad Hotel in Admiralty refused to rent out the conference room yesterday morning, citing a water leak. "The hotel said they could not rent out the room to us lest it have a negative impact on its image," Ms Chu said. The newspaper said it made the booking a month ago. The Conrad Hotel declined to comment. Rob Anders, a member of parliament in Canada and one of the speakers at the forum, said he did not believe the hotel's explanation. He said he saw the forum was on the list of events in the hotel lobby at 7am yesterday, but it was taken down two hours later.

"By giving in to the intimidation from mainland China, the Conrad Hotel is helping to jeopardise prosperity and freedom in Hong Kong," Mr Anders said.
The newspaper switched the venue of the forum, entitled "The Future of China", to Hong Kong Park. About 50 people, many of them Falun Gong supporters, took part in the event.

Szeto Wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and another of the speakers at the event, said Hong Kong's competitiveness would be hampered if the city's companies continued to succumb to political pressure. Another speaker at the forum, Ming Chu-cheng, professor of political science at the National Taiwan University, said he was interrogated by immigration officers when he arrived at Chek Lap Kok airport on Thursday evening.

I'm no fan of the Epoch Times nor the Falun Gong, but having 50 people turn up for a well-advertised chin wag only to cancel at the last minute demonstrates the power of fear in enforcing self-censorship.

The flipside is kudos should go to the SCMP, which bravely ran the Epoch Times' advertisements for two days running and dared to report on the cancellation of the meeting. Very brave indeed.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 22:31
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September 28, 2005
Taishi and China loses

The uprising in the village of Taishi hasn't received much coverage in Western media. ESWN has provided good coverage. There is the chronology of events to get you up to speed, the background to a report by Knight Ridder on the revolt in Taishi. Yesterday we noted the People's Daily applauding the CCP's rural election reforms. And ESWN has a clear explanation of the importance of the Taishi elections:

First of all, let us be very clear about what has happened. In essence, this is exceedingly simple.

* Fact: The village committee director of Taishi is elected by popular vote. In April 2005, Chen Jinsheng was elected with more than 60% of the votes.

* Fact: According to Article 16 of the Rural Villagers Organization Law of the People's Republic of China, the people may ask for a recall referendum of the village director if 20% of the eligible voters sign a joint petition. The petition must include some valid reasons. An example of an invalid reason might be the 20% are men who object to a woman being the director, and such a petition may be rejected because it violates other laws against gender discrimination. An example of a valid reason might be failure to publish financial statements for the village. The listed reasons do not have to be proven. For example, the thrust of the Taishi petition is not necessarily about corruption, which leads to a debate over the evidence. The Taishi petition can be about competence: Why is this village running a budget deficit with an accumulated debt of 10 million RMB? Could another village director do better than this one? That is fair and sufficient for a recall vote.

* Fact: After a lot of twists-and-turns and ups-and-downs, most of which are unfair and unjust to the villagers, there was an election to select seven committee members to organize the recall. The seven candidates proposed by the government were resoundingly beaten by the people's own choices. There will be a recall referendum to be held some time in the near future. If the current director Chen Jinsheng is recalled (and this seems very likely), there will be an election for a new director...

Taishi is that big case study.

Yet all the hope of this long running drama has seemingly come to end with a win for the status quo. The SCMP reports the game is over:

Villagers in Taishi, Guangdong province, have given up a three-month battle to remove their unpopular village chief after repeated threats to their lives, according to a lawyer supporting the group. More than 1,000 villagers reluctantly signed a letter circulated by the Yuwoutou township government, which oversees Taishi village, to stop dismissal proceedings against Chen Jinsheng . In another blow to the villagers' fight, the seven committee members elected to the board to oversee Mr Chen's dismissal on September 16 were replaced last week after they resigned. Allegations that Mr Chen misused village funds had led to a spate of protests, including petitions and hunger strikes, since July.

Tang Jingling , a Guangzhou lawyer providing help to the villagers, yesterday said he did not know the backgrounds of the seven new committee members or how they were selected. "But the villagers told me that the original seven-member committee was forced to withdraw from the election committee," he said, without explaining from where the coercion came.

Mr Tang went to Taishi with his lawyer colleague, Guo Yan , and Sun Yat-sun University Professor Ai Xiaoming on Monday to talk to villagers whose relatives were in custody for pushing for the dismissal of Mr Chen. Professor Ai said the group's taxi was chased and forced to stop by security guards who then smashed all the windows.

"The guards were in a frenzy. We were very scared and feared we could be killed," she said.

Miss Guo hitched a ride with a passing motorcyclist to seek help, but guards chased her on the highway and beat her on her head and leg with sticks. Professor Ai said Miss Guo had been left with bruises and a fever. While being chased in the taxi, they had used their mobile phones to call for police help, but no one came.

"We saw a police car drive past in the middle of the attack, but it didn't stop," she said. "We only succeeded in getting away when the taxi driver sped off and took us to Guangzhou police bureau." She said they reported the incident to the police.

Professor Ai, who was an observer of the Taishi village election on September 16, said Taishi was under "terrorist" control. "If people's lives are not safe in Taishi, how can one talk about other human rights," she said.

Professor Ai said the Taishi incident, hailed by outside media as a test case of grass-roots democracy on the mainland, had come to a tragic ending, but she hoped the country could learn from it.

By yesterday, 13 villagers were still in custody after a September 12 riot.

A letter dated September 15 from villagers' adviser Yang Maodong , better known as Guo Feixiong , was only delivered to his lawyer yesterday. It confirmed he had been officially detained since September 13.

Ten people have been jailed for between one and five years over a violent protest last month in which residents attacked government offices and destroyed cars in Hubei province. Earlier reports said thousands of residents, many unemployed, went on the rampage after police used dogs to try to break up a protest over a plan by authorities in nearby Huangshi city to annex the city of Daye.

So much for grass-roots democracy.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:43
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