Taishi Village, My Neighbor

At journalism schools, there are some standard lessons that periodically get shattered by reality.  An example is the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, as discussed in this WaPo article Media Anger Management by Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach:

Much has been made of the surge of emotion among journalists who covered the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and to a lesser degree Hurricane Rita. Jean Meserve of CNN broke down. Anderson Cooper, also of CNN, got mad. Shepard Smith of Fox was outraged.  Many have lauded the news media's newfound passion, and some have even wondered whether it might be a welcome sign of a new aggressiveness on their part.

But the praise has by no means been unanimous. "A 100-year journalistic commitment to a dispassionate report of facts seems to be in jeopardy," one well-known Washington journalism educator wrote us. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was moved to ask Anderson Cooper one night: "Is this an argument or an interview?"

The issue cuts to the heart of what it means to be a journalist at a time when the matter is more in doubt than ever. In a profession that pledges itself to suppress self-interest to ensure its credibility, are emotionalism and outrage ever appropriate? And if so, when do they go too far?

Emotional responses to breaking events have become increasingly common with the new technology that allows instant visual reports from any place on Earth: the World Trade Center, Fallujah, tsunami-stricken villages, a bloody schoolhouse in the Russian town of Beslan, and towns and cities ravaged by Katrina. The pictures provide the stimulus. Anchors, sometimes armed with little more information than viewers have, offer the response.

It would be difficult to argue that emotion from journalists on the scene witnessing such human suffering is always out of place. Journalists are in essence our surrogate observers. It would have been odd, even distressing to most, if reporters had reacted like journalistic robots to the devastation in the Gulf Coast -- further proof, press bashers would be quick to suggest, that the media have lost their humanity.

Rejecting that kind of emotional isolationism helped spawn movements such as civic journalism over a decade ago. The goal was to "reconnect" with citizens and present news in terms that made it more relevant to them. Bonding with audiences is also one of the forces that fueled the rise of the new partisan media.

Genuine human emotion drives journalism to higher levels of inquiry and gives journalists spine. Yet clearly there are risks to it. It can quickly descend into manipulative gimmickry, with journalists as professional emoters who cover events to express their outrage. Paddy Chayefsky explored this in the movie "Network," in which anchorman Howard Beale announces that he's fed up and isn't going to take it anymore. The angry everyman is an old cliche in the news game, one that is alive and well in talk radio, on cable TV and on new Internet venues.

One problem is that this kind of emotional formulation of the news can distort coverage. You search for stories that play that tune, and avoid those that do not. The emotionalism becomes the news, the brand, the gimmick. Information is deemed too cerebral and insufficiently visual.

The translated report below is an example of civilian journalism.  The writer is a professor at Zhongshan University and not a working journalist.  The report is not fair and balanced as taught in journalism schools or practiced at the newspapers of record.  Yet, one must wonder what would the point be in quoting even more from the Panyu Daily to achieve that balance? 

Postcript:  The Taishi Village recall campaign has been stopped.  See the related post: The Taishi Village Elections - Part 1 (Chronology) for what happened after the account here.  Other relevant posts are The Taishi Village Elections - Part 2 (The KR Report); The Importance of The Taishi Elections

Taishi Village, My Neighbor.  By Ai Xiaoming.  Originally published in abridged form in the Freezing Point weekly supplement of Chinese Youth Daily, and then published in full at the Yannan Forum (note: the original has been deleted, but a copy is preserved here).

The first time that I visited Taishi village was on September 4.  At the time, I had read on the Internet about the recall of a village official and the hunger strike by the village women to express their discontent.  My professional specializations are women, gender and cultural research, so women and community development are related areas.  Before school started this year, I was doing field research in the nationally designated poor area of Danfeng county in Shaanxi.  But I had no idea how women live in the economically developed city of Guangzhou and why they had to express themselves this way.

I was also hoping that my investigation can contribute to the solution of this crisis.

The Panyu district used to be a county-level city.  In 2000, it become a district within the city of Guangzhou.  The district is close to Hong Kong and Macau as well as Guangzhou.  Many Guangzhou residents buy homes here, so the real estate market is red hot.  When Hong Kong governor Wilson visited Panyu in 1993, he praised the excellent geographical location of Panyu and saw that it can be a light industrial and processing zone.  Generally, Panyu residents believe that they have better air quality than Guangzhou and the state enterprises generate more income than those in Guangzhou.

Yuwotou is a town here, and Taishi Village is located in the northeastern part of the town.  From Panyu's Sawan Bridge, it is just a short distance away after the first tunnel and turning right.  After some sugarcane fields and banana trees, there will be a sign saying "Taishi Village - Model Traffic Village."  Turning left leads to the Taishi Village Industrial Area, which has some factories and lots.

According to the statistics, Taishi Village has 2,075 residents divided into thirteen production brigades.  On July 29, the Taishi villagers turned in a copy of a Motion For Recall with four hundred signatures to the Panyu Civil Affairs Bureau to request the recall of the village committee director Chen Jinsheng.  According to the report by Southern Metropolis Daily reporter He Dazhi, villagers Feng Qiusheng and others held two meetings respectively on July 31 and August 14 to discuss the related laws, namely the Rural Villagers Organization Law of the People's Republic of China and the Guangzhou Province Village Public Rules.

In his speech, Feng Qiusheng focused on seventeen more serious problems based upon the feedback from the villagers in the thirteen production brigades.

These included: "The land use permit with the Liying Jewelry Factory stated that an area of 29,277 square meters were used, but the contract shown to the villagers mentioned only 14,960 square meters and the extra area is worth more than 3 million RMB; the Taishi Village industrial area requisitioned more than 100 hectares of land in 1993 but that land is unused so far and is better served by letting the villagers farm on it; the compensation monies for the land on the Taishi Village electricity transformer station and the Taishi elementary school are missing; our village has so many factories and we have sold so much land, yet the village has a debt of more than 10 million RMB; the status of the 7,000 plus square meters for the factory behind the pig farm is unclear (rented or sold?); no gifts were given to needy families during festivals; waterlogged fields receive no help in clearing or financial aids; ..."

During this time, the pro-recall villagers found out that the village accountant had tried to enter the village budget office.  They were worried that someone would try to amend or destroy the village accounts, and therefore they spontaneously organized shifts to watch those account bookss so that their status can be verified after the recall.

On August 16, the Taishi Villagers suffered their first big setback.  A young man named Feng Weinan was seized from his motorcycle by unidentified individuals.  More than 1,000 angry villagers surrounded the cars belonging to cadres, who summoned police help.  An 80-year-old grandmother named Feng Zhen suffered broken bones, while a 16-year-old young man suffered internal injuries from being kicked.  During the melee, seven more villagers were arrested.

On August 29, the villagers received the reply from the Civil Affairs Bureau that their motion to recall was rejected on the grounds that the document was not the original.  Therefore, on August 31, the villagers chose to start off at 6am and walked to the Panyu District Civil Affairs Bureau east gate.  They sat outside to express their demands.  The district government took them back to the Yuwotou elementary school to talk them out of it.  But three waves of villagers came to take their place and continued until the afternoon of September 1.  During the process, the leaders of the recall campaign -- Feng Qiusheng and Liang Shusheng -- and another villagers Feng Weibiao were arrested.

On September 4, I went to Taishi Village.  Feng Weinan had been arrested after being held 15 days on administrative detention.  He gave me a brief introduction of the situation.  Some women came and showed me the factories which were present on the basic protected farming areas, the land that has lied fallow for more than ten years after being requisitioned and the publicly disclosed accounts posted on the windows of the village office.

According to Article 5 of the Guangzhou Province Village Public Rules, the village affairs must be disclosed fully at least once every six months, and financial items should be disclosed at least once a month.  The women asked: "Why are the disclosed projects still those in 1997 and 1998?"  Most of the villagers think that the financial accounts contain much that was unclear.

At the hallway in front of the village affairs office, I saw many elderly women sitting or lying down on straw mats, and they formed the frontline of the recall action.

Most of the young men and women have to go out to work.  Many have their own businesses and some drive cars to deliver products.  Therefore, the village office was guarded mostly by elderly people, especially women.  In most families, the husbands go out to work while the women work the farm fields.  In Guangzhou, the temperature has been around 30 degrees centigrade during this period.  I watched the women working in the fields under the hot sun on Sunday.  They said that by the time that they got married and came here, there was no more land.  They were all working for the land-owning villagers.  On the land after the bananas were harvested, they were growing other crops.  They work from 730am to 1130m in the morning and 230pm to 630pm.  They earn 20 RMB for 8 hours of work per day.

There are many small river tributaries inside Taishi Village.  The villagers said the water used to so clear that the bottom can be seen, but it has now been polluted by the factories.  By the river, I can see many straw huts build over the water.  These huts are usually about 10 square meters in area, with palm leaves on the outside.  They are most inhabited by elderly women who live next to their children so they can come over to help anytime.  Some of the elderly people live by growing bananas themselves.  Others collect garbage (which they bring to the garbage depot).  An elderly woman who collects garbage makes 80 RMB per month.

According to the villagers, Taishi Village was a famous 100 million RMB village in the 1990's, and among the top inside Yuwotou town.  After becoming a development zone, the village land was requisitioned in large quantities, being the most among the dozen villagers in town.  However, the villagers have become poorer and poorer.

Last year's dividends were 50 RMB per share.  Those who were 18 or older have 20 shares and therefore got 1,000 RMB.  The children have 10 shares and therefore got 500 RMB.  A family of three will have revenues of 2,500 RMB at year's end.  After deducting various miscellaneous taxes, they only get 1,600 RMB and nothing else for the rest of the year.  In the past, when a family had a few hectares of land, they can plant bananas on one hectares and they can plant winter melons, so that the family can have an annual income of more than 10,000 RMB; even if they grew sugarcane, they can still make several thousand RMB.  But now, people only have six-tenths of a hectare including their homes and they average 600 to 700 RMB per capita after losing the land.

A 30-something-old woman said that when she first got here, they still had land.  Her husband had a job while she took the children down to the field.  But they have no land now and she has no means of getting a job: "They don't even want me to sweep the floor because I have no educational qualifications.  How is my daughter going to school without money?  Her tuition is more than 700 RMB per semester.  After paying the tuition, the money that I have left won't even buy breakfast."

Among the village cadres and village public security staff, many believed that the Taishi Village recall incident was manipulated by "black hands" behind the scene.  That is why they kept asking who the masterminds were.  An elderly woman who was interrogated by the police at the detention center said:

They took me in for interrogation.  They asked me why I went there.  I said that I went early in the morning to the Civil Affairs Bureau.  When I saw the villagers going, I went with them.  No one organized it.  I always go to the city early to sell vegetables.  I don't have time to eat breakfast.  But I don't even have any land to grow anything on.  I don't know how to survive.  Then they scolded, and I started to cry.  The elderly man next to me also started to cry.  I cried three times.

Afterwards, I said: "You have something to eat.  It is past 12 o'clock.  I am hungry and I want to eat."  They said: "You want to eat.  You will have something to eat later."  I said: "You make hard rice and I can take it.  You have good food, but we have much less.   We only have fermented bean curds and homegrown vegetable soup, and we cook our rice soft."  My husband has lung disease for five years and it is not cured. 

I told them, "I live in difficulty.  I stay with the brigade in order to earn some family spending money.  How come my land was taken but I get no money?"  He asked me how much we got.  I said that we got about 600 to 700 RMB per person.  "How we are supposed to feed ourselves with that kind of money?  If I had some land -- not even a lot, just one or two hectares -- I could grow something and sell them to eke out a living."

They asked: "What about your children?"  I said that my children sometimes have money, but not a lot.  "It costs more than 100 RMB to see a doctor.  You must know that if  you are sick, you must have money before the hospital will take you."  They nodded their heads.

After a while, they asked, "Who organized you to go?"  I said, "Nobody.  I went on my own."  They said, "Why are you such a tough talker?"  I said that I was used to hardship, and therefore I can talk.  "During the Anti-Japanese War period, the Japanese soldiers got on the boat with my sister and me.  But we were not afraid.  We are good people.  We are not bad people.  I am not afraid."

From September 6 to September 16, there were several large meetings at Taishi Villagers.  The villagers said that there has never been anything as exciting since the Land Reform.

The first meeting took place on September 7.  On that day, the Panyu District Civil Affairs Bureau and the town government workers came to Taishi Village to verify the signatures on the demand to recall.  On this episode, Southern Metropolis Daily's He Dazhi's report and Lu Banglie's article provided detailed coverage.

There are three things that impressed me the most:

First, there were police officers and municipal administrators accompanying the working group cadres.  Many people went up to them and asked: "Why are there so many police?  Are you going to arrest people?"  On that day, the government workers including the police officers were very polite and they did not talk back when scolded.  At first, they went directly towards the village affairs office.  But the villagers would not let anyone get near the budget office.  An old lady sat calmly on a liquid gas canister.  The cadres changed their minds and began to verify the signatures out in the courtyard of the village office.

Second, there were many more than just one 100-year-old woman present.  I saw one after another elderly woman being brought in on tricycles by their children or escorted to the scene.  Looking at an old woman, the government cadres repeatedly ask: "Do you know the meaning of recall?"  At first, the two women on the side said nothing, and then they burst out in laughter to say: "She is deaf!"  The old woman just sat still and quite oblivious.  Although the cadres would only accept the identification card as the sole proof, the women continued to express their demand for the recall.

Third, the crowds were emotionally aroused.  They argued and they made peace.  A woman holding a child said: "This child was within the family planning quota.  We spent more than 100,000 RMB to get a hukou.  But now they say that my hukou book does not count as identification."  Some villagers brought various other identification (such as handicapped person cards and Guangzhou City senior citizen cards) and explained patiently why they did not have identity card and they demanded strongly to put their palm prints on the petition to recall.

I saw many pairs of bare feet on the muddy ground.  There were many people who had mud splattered on their clothing.  The villagers carefully took out those identification papers from their plastic pouches.  After two days of verification, a total of 584 villagers with proper identification had agreed to recall.  This satisfied Article 16 of the Rural Villagers Organization Law of the People's Republic of China: "If 20% of the eligible voters sign a joint petition, they can ask for the recall of the village committee members."  According to the count conducted by the villagers themselves based upon all available identification documents, the number was more than 800.

On the Sunday afternoon of September 11, the Taishi Village office posted the notice from the Yuwotou Town government that confirmed that the Taishi signatures was "in keeping with the legally required number of people for the recall."  The notice said: "Therefore, our town government will carry out the next step in your village's recall process following the directions from the district Civil Affairs Bureau."

On Monday September 12, Southern Metropolis Daily had a front page article titled "The Taishi Village Official Recall Investigation" and the second page in-depth article was titled "Villagers 'Recall' Official According To The Law" with a photo of 80-year-old woman Feng Zhen giving a speech while being held up by two women.

The town government did not spell out which procedures were the ones that "were related to the recall."  According to the Rural Villagers Organization Law of the People's Republic of China, Article 16, there are these steps:
1. The recall petition must state the reasons for the recall
2. The village official who is being recalled can offer a dissenting opinion
3. The village committee should hold a meeting of the villagers to vote on the recall
5. The composition of the recall committee should be passed by more than half of the eligible voters.

According to the Guangzhou Province Village Committee Member Election Regulations, there are even more detailed regulations concerning any recall (see Chapter 6: Recall, Resignation and Termination of Duties and Replacement Voting).  The recall petitioners should state at the villagers' meeting the reasons and to respond to questions, and the recalled person has the right to appear at the meeting in defense or provide a written dissent.  This process gives both sides a chance to speak to all the villagers.  The villagers' meeting should include more than half the number of adults, which would be more than 700 villagers present at Taishi Village.

All of the above did not include the incident that occurred on the day after the Yuwotou town government posted the public notice.  On the morning of the next day, the villagers who purchased the new Southern Metropolis Daily did not even have to time to be delighted.  More than sixty police vehicles, government buses and mini-buses came into Taishi Village.  More than one thousand police officers surrounded the Taishi village office.  The riot police blocked access by the villagers rushing to the scene.

The villagers watched as the red fire department engine aimed high-powered water jets at the elderly citizens in front of the village office.  Then the police broke into the village office and removed all the financial documents in the budget office.  The villagers did not imagine that this could happen.

The Panyu Daily newspaper described it as follows: "During the clearance of the scene, the law enforcement personnel worked according to the law.  When assaulted, they did not strike back; when scolded, they did not yell back.  The overreaction of the villagers actually caused several police officers to be injured."  According to the villagers at the scene, several dozens of senior citizens and women were arrested.  From the villagers present, they arrested whomever the police designated.

After 2am that night, a couple of dozen of people were released.  They said:

There was someone who was unconscious from the beating and still under oxygen support.  The person was given four saline solutions by six pm before joining us.  Another person was concerned about a grandson at school and was crying all the way to the drug rehabilitation center, and then went into convulsion.  We asked the police to help her.  The police said, "Why don't you help her?"  We said, "You arrested her and you ought to help her."  The police said, "Do you believe that I can take off the police uniform and beat you?"  I said, "You are a police officer.  How can you say something like that?  If you wear the uniform, you are a police officer; you take off your uniform, you are a thug."  They said that they wanted to beat the villagers.  The villagers are innocent.  What crime did we commit?

The police used their shields to keep the villagers away.  The young people on the outside could not get in.  I saw an old woman almost choked to death, so I gave her a water bottle.  The police pointed at her to have her arrested.  I said asked him not to and that I would go with them.

When they arrested me, they did not ask say, "Let us go, grandma."  Instead, they grabbed both my arms.  As soon as I got on the car, I threw up.  I threw up.

My blanket was at the village office, and it is now gone.  I am an old person.  I don't even have a blanket to sleep in now.

While the police protected the district and town cadres to move into the village office to remove the accounting books, Guangdong Satellite Television made television recordings and many Guangzhou newspaper reporters were present.  Afterwards, nobody reported on it.

On September 14, the People's Daily published an article titled by "Discussing the Taishi villagers 'recalling' their village official" by He Linping.  That article described the pile of rocks which was guarded by the riot police as "public space" and the speeches delivered there as "public speeches" while affirming that this was a "powerful initiative to promote democratic processes."  The author may not realize that Grandma Feng Zhen whom he mentioned was laying in a hospital with broken bones, and that villagers Feng Qiusheng and Liang Shusheng who led the forum were changed from administrative detention to criminal detention on September 15.

On September 15, the Panyu Daily used its front page to publish an "Update on the Recent Situation at Panyu District Yuwotou Town Taishi Village": "The notice said that over the past month, individuals in Yuwokou Town, Taishi Village had petitioned across levels multiple times over land requisition issues.  They had also persuaded some other villagers to ignore the legal process to demonstrate in silence at the village office building, post banners and hold illegal assemblies to demand the recall of the village director, thus causing the operation of the village to be paralyzed.  During the period, the Panyu District Party Committee and Government sent many work groups to audit the village finances upon request by the villagers and the Panyu District public security bureau had sent law enforcement officers to the scene to mediate, but they were obstructed without cause by the troublemakers and abused with foul language.  On September 12, the Panyu District public security bureau cleared the scene in accordance with the law."

A villager said, "I have been reading the reports about our Taishi Village.  But I have never seen just where our accounting books have gone and how they are being handled."  The strange thing is that the so-called "illegal" recall was now going into the implementation stage.

On September 16, the students of Taishi Elementary School got half a day off.  The Town government and the Taishi party branch work group and study group held the "Taishi Village Third Vote for the Village Election Committee Meeting."  The Taishi Village party branch recommended seven candidates.  The villagers voted by households, with one vote per household.  After more than 10 hours of voting, the votes were counted and the results were announced before 7pm.  From more than 100 candidates, all the officially recommended candidates lost.  The current Village Party Branch Secretary and Village Committee Director Chen Jinsheng received only 17 votes.  The seven elected committee members were all grassroots villagers.  The top vote-getter was Wu Zhixiong, who is a military veteran.  At the August 16 conflict between police and citizens, Wu was arrested and detained for seven days and eight nights.

The official recall meeting will be held twenty days later on October 7.

It is the mid-autumn festival in Taishi Village.  The women are in their yards lighting up joss sticks to pay tribute to the moon.  There were occasional sounds of firecrackers in the villages.  Dogs barked a few times.

There is no lantern at the home of the young man Feng Weinan.  Father and son were both arrested on September 15, the day before the election.  I saw Mama Feng.  She smiled sadly and said, "The daughter needs to pay her tuition.  Both the men in the house have been arrested.  She has no idea where the money is or how to pay the tuition."

At the home of Feng Qiusheng, the advocate of the recall, both mother and son have been arrested.  The father of Feng Qiusheng is by himself, and no one knows where he is hiding.

According to some villagers, more than one hundred people have been arrested in Taishi Village between August 16 and mid-September.  On the night of the mid-autumn festival, 6 of the 24 people arrested on September 12 were released, including a 69-year-old man.  But the day before, a man by the name of Ah Qiang was arrested when he set off to sell vegetables.

Someone said that the wife of Ah Xiong, who had the highest number of votes in the recall committee election, is crying at her home because she heard rumors that they were going to arrest him.

A little girl in the village said, "Those police.  They'll arrest you if you break the law.  They'll arrest you even if you don't break the law.  You tell me where heavenly justice is."

There are few signs of people in the village.  The lights are sparse.  The villagers said, "I am afraid of the arrests.  I can't speak to you anymore.  Anyone who speaks to reporters will be arrested next.  You saw me this time, but you may not be seeing me again the next time."

On October 7, who will speak on behalf of opinion representative Feng Qiusheng, Liang Shusheng and Feng Weinan at the meeting about the issues?  Who is going to let the more than 20 detained villagers exercise their right to elect and to be elected?  How can they respond to the verbal or written defense offered by village official Chen Jinsheng?

On October 7, if the villagers are still frightened, how can they be guaranteed that they can exercise their right to elect and be elected without being intimidated?

On October 7, how will the Yuwotou Town and Panyu District people's government use actual action to implement self-government by the people, develop grassroots democracy, offer guidance, support and assistance, but at the same time not interfere with matters that belong to the domain of self-government by the villagers?

On October 7, not more than 20 days away, how far will the difficult recall process go?

But the important thing is just how much from mid-July to now have the people of Taishi Village, the town and district government cadres and police reached in terms of consensus about implementing the legal rights of the villagers for self-governance in terms of a win-win situation?  How shall the conflict be resolved for a true people-based harmonious society?

Tiny Taishi Village generated shockwaves through the recall campaign, to the point where the Taishi development has become a test for the possibility of democratic progress at the grassroots level.  How shall the intellectuals who have accorded importance to Taishi offer helping hands for enabling a steady transition under the legal system?

In the sugarcane fields, the leaves reach to the sky.  The young people who gave me road directions kept away from me.  The moonlight is like water and the night view is ink black, showing the silent Taishi.