Tue, Mar 10, 2015 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Chinese cyberdissident takes farmers’ land fight online

CORRUPTION VIGILANTE:Huang Qi was the first ever Chinese online activist to be jailed, but says authorities now find his reporting useful amid Xi’s anti-graft drive

AFP, CHENGDU, China

He spent years in jail for running one of China’s few Web sites dedicated to reporting human rights abuses.

Now, authorities appreciate his coverage, Huang Qi (黃琦) said as his smartphone buzzed with fresh news of injustice.

His Web site, 64 Tianwang, named in part after the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, runs headlines — “Village officials stab campaigner,” “Gangsters detain protester” — rarely seen in ordinary Chinese media outlets.

The stories that the dissident has collected over nearly two decades chronicle injustices during the largest urbanization in human history, which has transformed China from a largely rural nation to the world’s second-largest economy.

The process has made fortunes for some, but seen tens of millions of farmers deprived of land that their families worked for generations.

Huang has faced Chinese government reprisals for recording farmers’ efforts to resist, but now believes he is protected by the authorities — partly because of a much-publicized anticorruption drive under President Xi Jinping (習近平).

His apartment in a quiet quarter of Chengdu in the southwest bursts with beeps from his smartphone and laptop, heralding the arrival of information from a network of contacts in villages and cities nationwide.

“How many people protested? Have you got pictures?” he barked down the telephone at one correspondent, simultaneously chatting online with a woman detained by police officers who was sending him pictures of a dumpling lunch they provided.

At the current meeting of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said that authorities need to ensure “the interests of people in rural areas are protected” under land reform.

However, as he fired off another text message, Huang said the number of farmers who had lost their land was “constantly increasing.”

When he set up his Web site in 1997, the sale of rural land for property development — often after farmers were violently evicted — was emerging as a lucrative source of local government revenue, with individual officials making fortunes through kickbacks from developers.

However, the process left one-fifth of farmers uncompensated, while others were on average paid “a fraction of the mean price authorities themselves received,” according to a 2012 survey by US advocacy group Landesa.

The result was an explosive rise in rural protests — from marchers blocking roads to attacks on government offices — which are now thought to number tens of thousands each year, many providing fodder for Huang’s Web site.

In gleaming white shoes, Huang strode across a muddy construction site carved out of what was once farmland to meet Yuan Yi, whose home was bulldozed in December last year.

Yuan chose to stay put, living in a blue tarpaulin tent.

“I think the compensation is not fair, so I will remain here,” she said.

An hour’s drive away, Huang paused where a red banner fluttered outside a luxury graveyard in a foggy mountain valley. The banner read: “Fight corruption, investigate corrupt officials.”

A dozen women surrounded an open fire for warmth, protesting that the local government had not compensated them for the land now lined with hundreds of expensive marble headstones.

Chinese media outlets remain subject to close censorship, and the women said that newspapers in the area had been ordered not to report on their plight.

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