Reforms allow China’s peasants to assert their rights

PINGLU, China (AP) — The farmers of Qian village elected a leader they hoped would better their lives. When he proved to be a crook and a rapist, they complained — and the government listened.
Acting on the accusations of Qian’s elders and farmers, local officials ordered trial for Pei Anjun. Swiftly convicted and sentenced, Pei is now serving life behind bars.
Limited in centuries past to raising fists and hoes in rebellion, or simply swallowing their grievances, China’s farmers are using newly granted legal weapons to improve their downtrodden lot.
Reforms enacted since the 1980s have empowered them to challenge incompetent or corrupt local officials.
From the yellow-brown hills around Qian to the jade rice paddies of southern China, farmers — the bulk of China’s 1.2 billion people — also enjoy a right denied urban Chinese: to vote, in competitive elections with secret balloting, for local leaders.
Economic reforms have given farmers more money and fostered greater freedom and awareness. As their lives improve, some farmers are also growing more assertive and expecting better government.
“Leaders should not be corrupt, break laws, do things that are bad for the people,” said Li Jiangquan, an apple farmer and former head of a village near Qian, where Pei fell from grace.
“Now, we have the power to make them stand down,” Li said.
So Pei discovered. The farmers of Qian, 450 miles southwest of Beijing, elected the demobilized soldier as their village head in the early 1990s, giving him much control over the village purse strings.
The power went to his head. In about three years, Pei and his cronies spent $3,950 — more than 17 years’ earnings for the typical Chinese farmer — just on wining and dining, according to the official Shanxi Daily newspaper.
It said they sometimes wrote off expenses as purchases of mortar, prompting villagers to say: “Pei Anjun’s heart is harder than iron and he even dares to eat cement.”
After Pei raped a 16-year-old girl in 1995, the collective patience of local farmers snapped. They reported him, and hundreds packed the People’s Meeting Hall in Pinglu, the county seat, last summer to see Pei tried.
“He broke the law, suppressed democracy,” said Feng Gaiduo, Pinglu’s county chief. “He didn’t let the people speak. Whatever he said was the law.”
Taking on rural leaders can be risky. Like Pei, they often have contacts with local police and other officials they can recruit to suppress upstarts.
State-run media often report cases of local tyrants beating outspoken peasants to death, killing their pigs or razing their homes, sometimes pushing them to suicide.
The exact degree of change in China’s countryside is hard to gauge. But Pei’s is not an isolated case. Two researchers from Ohio State University — Li Lianjiang and Kevin J. O’Brien — cite scores of examples of farmers fighting back against officials who step out of line.
Some villages have refused to pay taxes until officials were removed or disciplined. Others held back grain promised to the state because officials didn’t supply them with fertilizer or diesel fuel.
In some cases, peasants infuriated by unfair fines, taxes or government demands for their labor have led armed attacks on police and party officials.
Having used peasant uprisings to seize power in 1949, China’s Communists prefer peace in the countryside. They introduced village elections not to undermine Communist rule but to ensure its stability.