BEITAI VILLAGE, China — On a chilly Sunday afternoon this month, Gao Jinghe walked up to the leader of his local township and stabbed him on the side of the face.
Next, Gao went down the hall to the office of the Chinese Communist Party secretary and kicked in the door. Without uttering a word, Gao sliced through the man's flesh with a knife used to slaughter pigs, according to a police account.
A bottle of gasoline in hand, Gao also reportedly set fires that gutted 26 rooms in the government building of Liuzhangzi Township. After years of challenging what he called corrupt business deals involving officials, many here say, Gao Jinghe had finally snapped.
News of the Jan. 15 attacks was all the more shocking because of Gao's background: He's the elected leader of Beitai Village, which is just down the road from Liuzhangzi and some 140 miles northeast of Beijing.
Gao now sits in a detention cell and his two victims lie in hospital beds. The narrative of his growing frustrations with official corruption in Beitai mirrors other incidents that have led to violence or protest across China.
Such outbursts have so far presented no direct threat to Communist Party rule. Focusing on local powerbrokers instead of the national government, the unrest remains geographically isolated and limited to short displays of emotion.
Nonetheless, the flare-ups of discontent suggest an ongoing challenge for Beijing during a year in which the core of its central leadership in the Politburo Standing Committee is slated for turnover. With each success the government has in quelling trouble — such as defusing a high-profile standoff with villagers at the coastal fishing community of Wukan in December — more seems to pop up in another part of the country.
Between the foothills and farm fields of Beitai, some now praise Gao — a man accused of trying to kill a township Communist Party secretary in broad daylight.
"He is definitely a hero," said one 47-year-old farmer, whose name is being withheld out of concern for possible repercussions of speaking so openly. "He didn't do those things for himself; he did them on behalf of the village."
Several others interviewed in Beitai expressed similar sentiment.
Walking down a dusty road with a basketful of paper offerings for Chinese New Year, 77-year-old farmer Wang Zhiming paused to describe Gao. "He was very popular here," Wang said. "The villagers saw him as someone who watched out for us."
The official explanation for Gao's rampage is simply that a bookkeeping argument with two village bureaucrats, after a festering personal dispute, sent him storming into the township office seeking help. At issue was the reimbursement of a receipt for some $300 in concrete used to rebuild a wall at the village committee building.
When he didn't get what he wanted, police say, Gao went into a rage.
"If he could not get the receipt reimbursed, he was ready to kill people," Liu Zengke, deputy director of the county Public Security Bureau, explained to McClatchy during a recent interview.
Conversations in Beitai suggested the reason was far broader. A 56-year-old pig farmer with only a primary school education, Gao got voted into office in 2009 on promises that he would clean up village finances.
He had some success scrutinizing the budget in this hamlet of about 1,500 people. But Gao grew increasingly angry as he found it impossible to untangle what he saw as illegal agreements brokered between area officials and businessmen. The reason, he reportedly said, was that the strands of corruption wound through higher-level government offices.
"He was very upset by the results. He didn't get any support from the relevant government departments," said Meng Xianzhi, a 49-year-old factory worker who'd joined Gao in filing complaints against officials.
"During village meetings, a lot of villagers were beginning to question him because he wasn't getting anything done."
Gao's family provided McClatchy with several documents that they said traced the causes of his disillusionment.
The most recent was a January government arbitration ruling from Chengde county, which has oversight of Beitai. Three villagers, including Gao's younger brother, demanded that Beitai sever a contract that had in 2000 granted a local businessman logging rights for four years on several tracts of land.
It turned out that a national law forbade cutting down trees in natural-growth forests, and the village commission claimed there was no way to return the money. So an additional provision was issued in 2001 by the prior village leader, a man named Xiao Fu. That extension granted the businessman rights to the land for three years after any future lifting of the logging ban — making his claim on the village forest open-ended unless national regulations are changed.
As Beitai's legal representative, Gao agreed to terminate the agreement. The businessman did not, according to a copy of the arbitration decision bearing official stamps. During the arbitration process, the man rejected the villagers' complaints that the documents were signed without their consent, according to the government record.
To villagers' protests that he'd purchased the land cheaply, he responded: "Why didn't you buy it?"
County arbiters decided on Jan. 4 that the contract had been bid on publicly and the agreements were legal and valid. That was just 11 days before Gao stabbed the two officials.
A McClatchy reporter visited the house of Xiao, the former village leader, seeking comment. A woman who identified herself as Xiao's daughter said he was not at home. "It's not right for people to speak carelessly with journalists," she said.
Several Chengde county and police officials declined to answer McClatchy's questions about links between Gao's attacks and the timber contracts. One of the lead police officers investigating Gao's assaults, a man surnamed Hu, said over the phone, "It's not convenient for me to talk with you."
In an interview at a local hotel, Liu Zengke, the county security official, insisted the argument about the receipt was the main catalyst for Gao's behavior.
Were there no bigger problems?
"There weren't any," said Liu, sitting on the other side of a large meeting room in which the chandelier was turned off overhead, leaving afternoon shadows to stretch across the walls.
"According to our preliminary investigation, this was the only reason - it was just a personal dispute," Liu said.
Gao's son, a 33-year-old construction worker with a mop of dark hair named Gao Jinsheng, said his father traveled with a group of villagers to Beijing three or four times in recent years to submit their grievances to the central government. Nothing came of the efforts, said the son.
"There are a lot of corrupt officials in the township, county and city, but our village head was helping villagers file complaints," said a 25-year-old Beitai farmer surnamed Liu, who asked that his full name not be printed because of fears of government retribution.
Asked about the morality of Gao's assaults, the farmer said: "If you look at the incident in a very simple manner then yes, he was guilty. But from a broader point of view, he did nothing wrong."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2012