She had everything you might want in an official: brains, diligence and an air of authority. She wielded the seals of office with confidence and compassion. Unfortunately, Zhang Haixin (張海新) lacked the government job to match these attributes.
On Friday, a court in Henan Province, China, jailed the 46-year-old farmer for two years for fabricating seals and forging official documents. Her friends Ma Xianglan (馬相蘭) and Wang Liangshuang (王兩雙) were sentenced to 10 months and eight months respectively.
In a country that has seen fake monks, fake police academies and fake UN peacekeepers, initial reports of Zhang’s “fake government” raised the specter of another money-making venture.
Yet villagers packed the court for her trial and burst into applause when defense lawyers spoke. They see her not as a criminal, but a champion — a rare, bold voice for farmers’ rights in a country where many of the rural poor feel left behind by China’s rapid development.
Zhang warded off forced land acquisitions and demolitions.
“I’m innocent. I’m not corrupt; I didn’t make money. I did this to serve the people,” she said at her trial last month.
Land grabs are one of the biggest sources of unrest in China, and Landesa, an international land rights organization, says 4 million rural inhabitants lose plots to the Chinese government each year.
Local authorities have few sources of income and rely on land sales to pay for employees and services. Yet villagers — who cannot sell the land themselves, because it is owned collectively — receive meager compensation or none at all when governments seize it and sell it to developers.
Those who resist often face forced eviction by hired thugs. Last year’s Third Plenum, an important policy-setting party summit, promised farmers more property rights, but experts are cautious about the prospects for meaningful reform.
Some villagers were disappointed when they met Zhang. This stocky woman, tanned from the fields, plain-speaking and cheaply dressed, was not their idea of an official. Yet her self-assurance and command of legal jargon quickly restored their confidence.
She showed particular kindness to women and elderly people, who are used to being brushed aside. She was resolute.
“With an education, she could have been an Aung San Suu Kyi,” said one of her lawyers, Gao Chengcai (高承才).
Zhang initially took on officials for refusing to pay a 5,000 yuan (US$804) bill they had run up at her small restaurant. The officials said it would offset her unpaid fines for breaching birth-control policies by having three children.
Her attempt to sue them failed, but word of her boldness soon spread in her village, Jiangzhuang. When officials there announced that they had given a piece of land away in compensation for a debt, the affected farmers turned to her.
Zhang took their complaints to successive levels of government over four years. On her many trips to Beijing, she filed endless complaints with everyone. Work and family life fell by the wayside.
She had no more than primary education, but now pored over books on rural law. The household savings were eaten away by expenses. Her personal grievances were submerged in the broader tide of discontent.
Eventually Zhang acted on advice that she and others could form a cooperative by pooling their land-use rights. Yet authorities would not give the new body the red seals or stamps of approval that it needed. She had seals carved illicitly, and the Jiang collective quickly issued a “notice of suspension” banning building work on the disputed land.