Sat, Sep 27, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The village that defeated developers

Protests by residents of the small Chinese village of Xian led to the downfall of a top official and the end of an intimidation campaign

By Jonathan Kaiman  /  The Guardian, GUANGZHOU, China

Illustration: Constance Chou

To find the villagers who toppled one of southern China’s most powerful men, start just east of Guangzhou’s Canton tower, an LED-lit column twisting more than 500m into the cloud cover. Head north, past two blocks of luxury apartments, until you come to a high concrete wall. Behind its gates, you will find Xian Village.

Xian is the size of about eight soccer fields. Most of its 4,000 residents live three or four to a room, up filthy staircases in boxy concrete mid-rise blocks. Its tangle of dark, narrow alleys winds in on itself like a labyrinth.

On a recent rainy night, about 300 villagers gathered for a traditional Cantonese feast. Some performed a lion dance with a big, black papier-mache lion.

Since Aug. 19, 2009, the villagers have been waging an open protest against official corruption and every summer they gather to celebrate their progress.

This year’s banquet was especially festive. Just the day before, after years of ignoring or censoring the revolt, state media syndicated a report applauding Xian village for uncovering an “iron triangle of corruption” among village officials, two local developers and former Guangzhou deputy mayor Cao Jianliao (曹鑒燎). Cao was placed under investigation in December and sacked in July.

“Over the past year, our lives have got better; our hearts are calmer,” said Lu Jingfeng, 43, captain of the village soccer team, as he tucked into a plate of roasted pork belly. “But our demands have not yet been met. So we’ll keep on fighting.”

Xian village is one of 138 “urban villages” scattered throughout Guangzhou, a sprawling, 13 million-people metropolis at southern China’s economic core. Municipal authorities consider the villages an eyesore and a slum-like breeding ground for social unrest. They announced plans in 2010 to redevelop all of them within the decade.

Xian village was not always surrounded by a concrete wall — local authorities built it in 2011. Make conditions unbearable, the logic went, and the villagers would leave. A cabal of powerful developers — Jiayu Group, Nanya Property Development, Qiaoxin Real Estate, Poly Real Estate — were anxious to turn the land into luxury apartments and office blocks.

Yet despite the wall, like the beatings, arrests and forced demolitions before it, the villagers were recalcitrant. Even now, they live amid swaths of utter devastation. Weeds grow from mountains of rubble. Concrete apartment blocks sit half-demolished, their exposed tangles of reinforcement bars splayed like severed nerves.

Similar scenarios are playing out across China, as Chinese Communist Party authorities attempt to move 250 million rural people into cities by 2025. It may be the largest social engineering experiment in human history. Under Chinese law, urban land is owned by the government and rural land is owned collectively by villagers. Yet the easiest way for local governments to fill their coffers is by requisitioning that land and flipping it to developers. Often, they bribe village leaders to keep prices low, and the villagers themselves end up with meager compensation for land they have owned for centuries.

“I can’t even count the number of demonstrations we’ve had,” said Ms Lu, 40, who calls defending the village her full-time job.

Lu, who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals, has a soft, lilting voice that belies an undercurrent of outrage.

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