TAISHI, China—A telltale scent of insurrection wafts across parts of rural China, and it's filling the air of this industrialized Pearl River Delta village.
Angry residents have made the village hall a squatters' camp. They've evicted the mayor, who's also the local Communist Party chief, and seized village budget records, suspecting malfeasance. They've set up sentinels in case police riot squads come to evict them.
A red banner suspended over the hall's entry gate declares, "Remove the village officials. Give our rights back."
What's happening in Taishi, population 2,000, might seem like garden-variety social strife. But in China, such local revolts are a bellwether of broader unrest. The fault lines are many, including land disputes, a widening wealth gap, social injustices and rising health-care costs. Emboldened villagers are complaining, occasionally erupting in rampages. While top leaders of China's one-party state offer some sympathy, they've also tightened news censorship and prepared muscular methods to quell revolts.
In Taishi's case, the unrest has some unusual variants. Villagers are seeking the legal removal of the elected mayor, a new election and an audit of village finances. They say their efforts are lawful and nonviolent.
Even so, tension fills the air. Several organizers of the rebellion say police are looking for them, forcing them underground and on the run. Chinese authorities often have dealt harshly with protest leaders, fearing unrest could spread.
"I hid in the fields for seven hours in the rain while the police were looking for me," said Feng Qiusheng, a 26-year-old accountant, meeting with a reporter at a restaurant in Guangzhou, a flourishing city on the Pearl River an hour's drive north.
Chinese government officials acknowledge that demonstrations and disturbances are increasing. Zhou Yongkang, the minister in charge of the public security bureau, noted recently that the number of "mass incidents" rose from 58,000 in 2003 to 74,000 last year, involving 3.6 million people.
When China introduced direct grassroots elections in 1988, it appeared to be a major stride toward democratic reform. A decade later, the Communist Party adopted election standards, such as secret balloting and recall procedures, theoretically giving villagers a say in picking leaders and determining such matters as village finances, public works and economic activity.
In many areas, the elections have been a success. In others, villagers complain of improper procedures, meddling by party leaders and even outright rigging.
"In reality, village officials can prevent people they don't like from running for office," said Lu Banglie, a grassroots elections expert from Hubei province who came to Taishi to help in the recall campaign.
Problems didn't seem apparent immediately with Taishi's elections in early April. The local party chief, Chen Jinsheng, ran for mayor and won.
"He's very rich. He's charismatic," said Feng Yueping, a 19-year-old villager who said she voted for him.
But others began to talk about financial irregularities in the village, which is prosperous by Chinese standards. It has jewelry, clothing and footwear factories, as well as manufacturing plants for electronic components and motorcycles. Taishi profited from selling land to the factories, and it collects annual fees.
Like many villages in China, Taishi is set up under a collective system in which village income is distributed to adult residents each year as dividends. Last year, the average adult in Taishi received 1,000 yuan, or about $123.45, a sizable sum for most residents, but less than in other nearby communities.
"There are many villages in China that have this kind of problem with village finances. Villagers are often suspicious of their leaders on money issues," said Guo Feixiong, a lawyer from Beijing who's coordinating the election-recall effort in Taishi.
Few villages, however, are in the habit of opening the books for local scrutiny.
Reports of irregularities in Taishi grew to a fever pitch last month, and at a meeting July 31 some 400 of the village's 1,400 eligible voters attached their signatures and fingerprints to a recall petition demanding Chen's removal as mayor and new elections.
When local officials posted budget tables on a bulletin board outside the village hall, they only stirred up more anger and charges that the mayor had misused annual revenue.
"Most villagers were outraged when they saw these tables," said Feng Manlan, noting that the mayor hadn't consulted residents on a series of expenditures.
Dozens of villagers took over the three-story village hall, using a wooden bench to barricade the office in which the budget books are kept. They said they'd already detected one effort to penetrate the room and steal the books, and that they awaited permission for an audit.
"Every evening, two or three people sit on the bench so that no one can get in," Feng Weibiao said as workers collected straw mats where squatters had slept overnight.
Unable to get in his office, beleaguered Mayor Chen has kept a low profile. His cellular phone was turned off Thursday, and he couldn't be reached for comment.
Events came to a head Aug. 16, just as Beijing announced that it was creating special police riot units in 36 major cities to quell unrest. In Taishi, villagers surrounded four vehicles carrying district officials, who summoned the new Guangzhou riot unit. Quickly, Taishi swarmed with helmeted police wielding batons.
An 18-year-old man and a 74-year-old woman fell to the ground under blows from police, and remained in a regional hospital this week. Eight people were arrested.
Surrounding township authorities issued a statement saying police "were very restrained" and accusing "several trouble-making individuals" of manipulating the protest. The statement promised to look into villagers' complaints. A regional civil affairs bureau, meanwhile, has until next Wednesday (August 31) to rule on the recall petition and a new election.
Villagers, in the interim, are on high alert. An escort of villagers on motorcycles accompanied a vehicle that was carrying journalists to ensure that police didn't intercept it and block reporting of the conflict.
"They are very determined. They know that if they fail, the village officials will take revenge," said Lu, the grassroots elections expert.
Yet if regional officials accede to the recall petition, it could let loose an avalanche in villages where dissatisfaction with officials is running high.
"If Taishi villagers succeed in removing their leader, then villagers all around the Pearl River Delta will follow suit," said Guo, the lawyer. "It can have a domino effect."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-REVOLT
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