SCMP Aug 29, 2010

Village seethes over 'stolen' election


It was around 10pm on July 27, and Song Jianzhong was just a handful of votes short of unseating Wei Jiandong as village chief of Raolefu, a small village on the outskirts of Beijing. However, when the final tally was done it appeared that Song fell short of the more than 50 per cent majority required to be declared the winner. 

But then villagers noticed something - 51 votes were missing from the total number they had cast. They demanded a recount, but Wei, the powerful incumbent village chief and the man in danger of losing the election, made a quick decision. He ordered the police to seize the ballot boxes and take them away. 

Several hundred citizens of Raolefu were outraged. Arguing that Wei did not have the authority to make any ruling on the election, and suspecting some sort of misdeed on the part of the incumbent village chief, they refused to allow the 20-odd police to exit the voting area. 

'Unless you show us the 51 ballots, you can't take them away,' one villager shouted. 'Close the door, don't let them take the ballots out,' screamed another.

What followed was an all-night stand-off between villagers and police, which lasted until around 2pm the next afternoon, when officials showed up to negotiate. When that failed, at around 3pm, they called in more than 200 regular and riot police, who overpowered the villagers to remove the ballots. Four villagers were dragged away, and are believed to have been charged with obstructing traffic.

In the weeks since, at least another nine villagers have been detained - some with no reason being given. They include Liu Jinfu, the director of the election commission, and two other commission members. The candidate, Song, who was very popular in the village, has not been seen since election night, and is believed to be in hiding.

Five of those arrested had been interviewed by the Sunday Morning Post on August 19, and some were also present during an interview with Wei that day, when they lashed out at the village chief, accusing him of personal corruption and of illegally seizing the ballots. 

Officials from Fengshan district, which is responsible for Raolefu, deny these people were arrested for talking to the Post, but the day after the interview some 100 government workers made house-to-house visits to each family, issuing stern warnings.

'Don't raise the question of the election any more,' the workers told the villagers, according to a source in Raolefu. 'If you do, you'll be the ones who suffer.'

In an interview, Wei at first denied he was the one who gave the order to have the police seize the votes. 

And Wu Guangxian, a Fengshan district official, insisted that the election law did not specify who had the right to intercede. 

But shortly after that, Wei heatedly admitted giving the order. He insisted that, as the village's Communist Party secretary, he had the right to make the decision.

'The people were fierce,' he said. 'They demanded the ballot boxes be open. So we had to take them away.'

'According to the law, we had to protect the votes,' said an excited Wei. 'If someone walked away with the votes, who would accept the responsibility?'

'Everything he says is a lie,' screamed Liu, who is also a former village chief. 

Liu said he was prevented by Wei and the police from entering the area where the votes were being examined. 'I was elected by the villagers as the director of the election commission, but I had no authority at all,' Liu said. 'I was nothing more than a decoration.'

Liu complained that Wei was a candidate and should not have had any connection to the election. Experts agree. 'Wei was a candidate, and according to the regulations, he and his family members should have avoided anything to do with the election process,' said Yao Lifa, an expert on village elections. 'Even more important, he had no right to order the police to seize the ballot boxes.'

Yao said that if the villagers had suspicions about the election, then it was reasonable and within their legal rights to call for a recount. And he said that the police had no authority to take the ballot boxes. He called the incident 'political violence'.

Anger was already high in Raofelu, where many allege that the powerful village chief, who is also a member of the National People's Congress, used his influence to engage in corruption and to squash anyone who challenges him. Many had hoped to use the election to kick him out of office.

'It's not a question of how much power he has,' said Ma Yu, a villager who has been hiding out in Beijing since August 20, saying police are looking for him, 'but how big his circle of connections is. He has a lot of ties.'

A young woman who gave her name as Ivy said her husband, Zhao Yun, 30, was taken away on August 13. 'It's been a week, and we've been given no reason at all,' she said. Her mother-in-law stood beside her looking nervous. She said her husband only voted and did nothing wrong.

In May, 200 villagers sent a joint open letter to higher government organisations complaining of illegal actions taken by Wei during his eight years in power. There was no response. A second letter was sent in June, but was also ignored.

Although they said there was a risk in speaking out publicly, no one seemed afraid on a recent afternoon.

On August 19, several dozen villagers stood along a main street of Raolefu, many of them holding police documents related to the detentions or documents concerning their own personal grievances. Several people played mahjong on the street as a villager using a loudspeaker mounted on a three-wheeled bicycle cart blasted the election, saying it was rigged.

Villagers crowded around a journalist, one alleging that Wei bought votes for 200 yuan and several others nodding in agreement. Another accused him of selling off village land and pocketing the money or giving it to cronies. 

Villagers shouted over each other in an effort to be heard. Wei is so notorious that the villagers wrote a rhyme poking fun at him. They say the children recite the ditty on the way to school.

'The people have no voice,' said a man in a beige shirt. 'Only the cadres can talk. If you say anything, you'll be taken away.'

'Who speaks for the people?' shouted another villager, angrily. 

'Wufa, wutian,' shouts another man, 'There is no law.'

A woman in a yellow T-shirt tried to speak, but then broke down in tears. 'I'm sorry,' she said, 'I'm just too upset.'

No decision has been made to reschedule the election, and unless a higher authority steps in, it appears that Wei will serve another term as village chief.

Meanwhile, several villagers have left the village and gone into hiding and more arrests are expected.