DENG ZHUANG, China — Peng Gonglin wasn't an important man. He lived in a bare concrete house in a small village where women stoop beside ponds to scrub clothes in buckets and the men often harvest crops by hand.
When his rice fields came up empty last October, Peng had no influence and little cash. The 43-year-old farmer had spent almost all of his family's savings and borrowed more to lease the land and buy seeds.
County experts in the central province of Henan tested the seeds he'd planted and determined that he'd been sold inferior goods. Peng begged for financial or legal help from the local agricultural bureau and its county seed station.
He took what remained of his family's money and tried to bribe two local officials to intervene. They accepted the meals, massages and prostitutes, but they did nothing in return, according to a letter he later wrote.
Finally, on March 29 he returned to the county seed station to plead once more. Men there beat Peng about the head until he went home, humiliated.
Facing financial ruin, he carried out one last act of protest. Early the next morning, Peng Gonglin's body was found hanging at the seed station.
The story of Peng's lonely suicide reveals the pitfalls beneath the glossy surface of China's booming economy. Ordinary Chinese who've been cheated or defrauded, especially in rural areas, find themselves trapped in neo-feudal conditions with no protection beyond the mercy of corrupt officials.
Outsiders are sometimes baffled by the emphasis Chinese leaders put on order and harmony, and their crushing response to any signs of unrest. From the turmoil in a village such as Deng Zhuang, though, it's clear that the nation sits uneasily on deep social fault lines.
In the aftermath of more than a half-dozen attacks at schools across China during the past two months, in which men walked into classrooms and hacked small children with hammers or knives, many Chinese experts pointed to the lack of social safety valves and legal means of venting frustration.
"People at the bottom of the social ladder ... are deprived of their rights to speak out, of their rights to appeal and petition," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing University of Technology who specializes in issues of rural development.
As one Chinese lawyer wrote in an online essay last month, "The lack of social justice makes people hate government officials. Once these burdens accumulate beyond people's psychological endurance ... they tend to act in an extreme way, whether to retaliate against society or to choose to commit suicide."
WRITING ON THE WALL
About 45 miles up the road from the poverty of Deng Zhuang, banners advertise "elegant living" and "baroque flooring" in clusters of glimmering new buildings in the city of Zhumadian. The rolling wheat fields that ring the city are crossed by miles of elevated train tracks, part of China's $100 billion-plus investment in a high-speed rail system that's being pounded into shape.
Few in the West have heard of the surrounding province of Henan, but its population is expected to reach 100 million this year, roughly one-third that of the United States.
One large sign for a Zhumadian construction project reads in English: "Control the future Control the world."
It's a postcard from a nation hustling toward greatness.
Drive south toward Deng Zhuang, and the signs begin to change. Red and white banners painted on walls proclaim: "Implement the central government's spirit. Fight against illegal petitions."
In hamlets farther on, slogans streaked across the sides of buildings warn: "Illegal petitioners will be severely punished."
The meaning is clear: Those who speak against the government are dealt with harshly.
As word spread this past year about failed rice crops in the region around Zhumadian, most locals remained silent. Thousands of acres of dry rice fields — those planted with seeds that don't need as much water as traditional paddies — yielded little or no harvest, according to a March publication overseen by a federal government agricultural inspection agency.
The seed came from North Henan, mislabeled as a more costly variety and ill-suited for the local climate and soil, said Tong Junhua, vice director of the Zhumadian seed station. Had the weather been perfect, at least some rice would have grown, but heavy rains wiped out the inferior seeds.
The price difference between the varieties was minimal, Tong said.
"People are driven by greed, even if it's just a little money," he said. "They thought nothing would go wrong and figured why not."
Why didn't agricultural or local officials test the seeds, as they are required to do by law?
"I don't know; I'm not clear why the relevant departments didn't do their job," Tong said, laughing but looking exasperated.
TIME FOR LUNCH
The question of how bad seeds flooded the market and escaped official detection may be a simple case of greed and incompetence.
The two owners of the firm that sold the seed, Xinxiang Wu Feng Seed Industry Co., probably could give an answer, but they've been taken into custody for questioning, according to company employees. Two county officials are reported to be under investigation.
A senior researcher from the seed company, Zhao Xinming, acknowledged in a phone interview that his bosses hadn't submitted the seeds to government inspectors and had sold them under false packaging. He said that the seeds weren't the problem, blaming bad weather and worse farming practices.
Zhao said that his company and its owners had no ties to the government.
Local officials, though, act as if they have something to hide.
On a small country lane in Deng Zhuang last week, a silver minivan pulled up and four plainclothes policemen got out and asked a McClatchy reporter for his identification. A few minutes later, a black Hyundai showed up with five government representatives in it.
There would be no more interviewing locals about Peng. With the black Hyundai leading the way and the police van following, the authorities insisted that the reporter join them at a nearby hotel for lunch.
A crystal chandelier dangled from a gold ceiling in a private dining room. The officials ordered one course after the other — Beijing duck, a delicate mushroom soup, vegetables plucked from the mountains, ox tripe and sea plants, a large fish, spices and sweets — costing more than most villagers make in a month.
A man who was introduced as Tian Zhong of the Chinese Communist Party propaganda department said that one shouldn't listen to what the farmers said, that they didn't know anything. In fact, Peng's own wife probably didn't even know what her husband's gender was, Tian said to guffaws at the table as the officials gorged themselves on more than a dozen dishes brought to the table by a pretty young waitress.
"He's just a farmer," Tian said of Peng, as he picked food from his teeth. "He doesn't know what he was talking about."
After the conversation ended, a county official confided that Tian's real first name was Dong, not Zhong. He didn't work for the propaganda department; he was the deputy director of the county's agricultural bureau.
The reporter then was escorted back to the Zhumadian city limits.
'THERE WAS NO WAY OUT'
Zhang Dayan doesn't have a picture of her late husband, Peng Gonglin. There was no family photograph at the house; that sort of thing is for people with money, not peasants, she explained.
She didn't want to talk about Peng. "Just leave what happened alone," Zhang said.
Peng's older brother, who lives next door and didn't want his name published, agreed. "Right now, it's meaningless to talk about this matter," he said. "My brother is dead."
Peng's suicide note told of his efforts to expose faulty seed distribution, the necessity of buying prostitutes for local officials and the beating he received, according to Chinese media reports. The government quickly announced that it was giving his family 200,000 yuan — almost $30,000 in hush money, decades' worth of salary in the area.
On the road that leads to Peng's house, a cousin of his rode by in a cart pulled by a tractor.
"We know a lot of farmers who've bought fake seeds in this area," said Peng Yanmin, as the other farmers around him nodded. The government, he said, does nothing to protect them, and some suspect that those responsible for the bad seeds have connections with officials.
What did he think about his cousin's suicide?
"I think he was helpless," Peng Yanmin said. "There was no way out."
He paused. The sky was getting dark; a shower was coming.
The driver started the tractor again, belching black smoke. The men rumbled away. A few minutes later the rain came, falling on the fields where Peng Gonglin once worked.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010