By Yaqiu Wang, published: December 16, 2014
An election in a heartland Chinese village in Henan province, held on December 13th, attracted attention from Chinese scholars, netizens and activists. A 73-year-old man, Chen Ji’en (陈纪恩), was re-elected Chairman of the 8th Village Committee of Beijie Village (北街村) by fellow villagers in what was reported by observers as a fair and free election. Chen was respected, popular, even considered a hero, due in no small part to his leadership during the past eight years as Beijie villagers fought to resist property developers from building commercial real estate projects on the farmland they owned. But Chen Ji’en is unpopular with the local government, and the local government is attempting to deny the election result.
The troubles for the people of Beijie began in March 2006 when, right before Beijie village was to be redistricted (link in Chinese), the government of Yanjin county (延津县) of Xinxiang municipality (新乡市), under whose jurisdiction Beijie village fell, expropriated 1,769 mus or about 300 acres of land from Beijie, which constituted about 90 percent of the village’s total arable land. Villagers were compensated with a mere 25,000 yuan (4,200 dollars) for each mu seized. The land was then promptly sold to commercial property developers for a price many times higher (link in Chinese).
According to pleas posted by villagers online (links in Chinese), on June 9th, 2006, the Yanjin government deployed over a thousand policemen and government workers and several dozen police cars and shovel loaders to forcefully demolish the crop fields. Villagers clashed with the demolition crew and the police, resulting in several injuries and the detention of a dozen or so people.
With little land left to farm, no alternative job opportunities and their compensation quickly running out, the villagers began to seek redress.
The Beijie villagers first filed administrative lawsuits against the Yanjin county government. They believed the Yanjin county government’s actions were illegal because the Basic Agricultural Protection Regulations (link in Chinese) stipulate that any conversion of basic agricultural land requires the State Council’s approval. Apparently, the expropriation of Beijie village’s land, which was indeed categorized as basic agricultural land, did not get the approval from the State Council. Nevertheless, the lawsuits were all thrown out of different levels of courts with the courts claiming that the villagers had missed the statutory time frame for filing their case.
Villagers also petitioned different levels of government, from local Yanjin county all the way to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, and the Ministry of Land and Resources in Beijing. The local government offices informed villagers that the compensation standard for the expropriated land was in accordance with the law. And provincial and higher-level offices passed the buck back to local offices. In some instances, petitioners were detained and mistreated. One petitioner, Ren Yinlin, was held in a mental hospital for over 40 days and tortured, according to her Sina blog (link in Chinese).
In May 2013, Chen Ji’en went to Beijing to petition, but he was forcefully escorted back home by Yanjin officials. First criminally detained on trumped-up charges of “damaging public property” and “extortion,” Chen was later formally arrested and put in jail. It was not until 10 months later that Chen’s trial was held. Chen was sentenced to 13 months (link in Chinese).
Beijie villagers’ efforts have come to nothing. Their experience is hardly unique. In China, disputes over land expropriation account for about half of all “mass incidents,” the official term for protests, riots, and other forms of social disorder in China. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there are more than 100,000 such “mass incidents” across the country annually.
On June 23rd of this year, the day when Chen Ji’en was released from jail (link in Chinese), he was welcomed to the village by hundreds of villagers standing in line awaiting his return. Banners were held up and fireworks crackled as he arrived. Villagers pinned a big red paper flower on Chen to honor their beloved “old village head.” Meanwhile, forced demolitions and new house construction were continuing. Chen and the village vowed to continue the fight.
In October, the Xinxiang municipal government issued an announcement (link in Chinese) stipulating that anyone who had been released from prison for less than five years was ineligible to run in village elections. The announcement amounted to barring Chen from running. As Zhang Qianfan (张千帆), professor of law at Peking University, penned in this Financial Times op-ed (link in Chinese) titled An Example of the Unconstitutional and Unlawful Grassroots Elections,
“The 34th Article of the Constitution made it clear enough: all citizens who are 18 and older have the right to stand for election, except those deprived of their political rights in accordance with law. First of all, only laws passed by the National People’s Congress or its standing Committee can set restrictions on qualifications of candidates. Xinxiang municipal government’s announcement doesn’t even count as a law or regulation… It’s completely invalid. Secondly, only those who committed serious crimes could be deprived of political rights and thus could be deprived of the right to be elected… ‘Being released from prison for less than five years’ is far from something due to which a candidate’s eligibility can be deprived constitutionally.”
On December 13th, Beijie village held its election. Chen Ji’en’s name was not on the ballot, however, 845 of the total 1,415 voters cast a write-in vote (links in Chinese) for him. Chen won his third consecutive term as the chairman of the Beijie Village Committee.
Activist Wu Gan (吴淦), known as the Butcher, was invited by the village to witness the election. Other observers were on the scene too. Right after the vote, Wu wrote on Twitter (link in Chinese), “the municipality party secretary declared that he won’t allow Chen to be elected, because if so, Chen will not cooperate with him on his real estate projects in Beijie.”
Indeed, after the election, the Xiaodian township government, the administrative authority with direct jurisdiction on Beijie village, posted an announcement in the village declaring that the election result was awaiting further investigation. The announcement bore the village Election Committee’s seal that the township officials illegally confiscated.
Xiong Wei (熊伟), director of Civic Participation and Legislation Research Center of the Beijing-based private think tank New Enlightenment Institute (新启蒙研究所公民参与立法研究中心) who was also invited to witness the election, commented on his Weibo that this is as ridiculous a tale as it is scandalous” (link in Chinese).
In China, village elections were launched in 1987 with the enactment of the Organic Law of Village Committees (link in Chinese). In the 20 years that followed, though often beset with corruption, cronyism and weak accountability, a good number of reasonably free and fair (link in Chinese) elections have been held across the country. The situation, however, has gradually taken a turn for the worse in the past decade. As tension between villagers and local governments continues to rise over land expropriation and environmental issues, the crackdown on village elections has increased and grown harsher. In more and more cases, the elected village heads who genuinely represent villagers’ interests are not what the local governments want.
The Carter Center, the think tank founded by former United States President Jimmy Carter who is credited with normalizing US relations with China, had been working in China monitoring village elections since the 1990s. In December 2012, Carter was told by Xi Jinping himself to steer clear of China’s internal affairs and only focus on US-China relations. One can say that hostility towards village elections is not limited to local governments.
In 2011, the Wukan uprising in Guangdong province (广东乌坎) captured the attention of the world. Villagers rose up to protest against their local government for corruption and illegal land seizure. The government responded to villagers’ demands by promising free elections and the return of illegally seized land. The event was hailed as a victory for democratic forces in China. So far, however, only a small portion of Wukan villagers’ lands have been handed back. This October, seven months after villagers Hong Ruichao (洪锐潮) and Yang Semao (杨色茂) got elected, they were sentenced to four and two years respectively in prison after a secretive trial on “corruption charges.”
The fate of the Beijie election is still uncertain. The latest update (link in Chinese) from Wu Gan and Xiong Wei is that the Xinxiang municipality police had gone to Beijie to threaten the election committee members and their families, warning them not to endorse the election results.
“Article 12 of the Organic Law of Village Committees clearly stipulates that ‘the elections of village committees shall be presided over by village election committees.’ So who is violating the law?” Asked Xiong Wei.