Lu Banglie at Baoyuesi Village

(The Guardian)  A pioneer who studied Gandhi.  By Benjamin Joffe-Walt and Jonathan Watts.  October 11, 2005.

Lu Banglie is not a household name in China. But for the growing pro-democracy movement, his role as a popularly elected village chief is a symbol of success after years of struggle for momentum. Mr Lu has spent most of his life like the majority of China's 1.3 billion population: as a farmer eking out a living. He was born in Baoyuesi village in Hubei province, and lives with his elderly mother in a hut.

A film about Gandhi changed his life. He believes the aggression and hyper-control of the Chinese authorities can be combated only with dialogue, teaching, learning, petitions. Mr Lu studied the doctrines of non-violence to appreciate simplicity, to focus, to spread the word in the villages.

In 2001 at the age of 30, he began petitioning the Beijing government to relieve taxes on poor farmers. At the time, China had started experimenting with village elections, allowing villages to oust their chief should the need arise. Mr Lu began organising against his chief after an election he claims was fake. He succeeded in getting the chief ousted, and was elected last year, campaigning against land seizures, corruption and rising healthcare costs.

In the following, you can read something very detailed and quite different about Lu Banglie.  This case study brings out three points from the previous post The Importance of The Taishi Elections.  I will transplant them over in this context.

(Nanfang Weekend)  Lu Banglie: The Difficult Road To "Govern" For A Village Official.  October 8, 2004.

[translation]  "How shall I proceed?"  In late August, 33-year-old Lu Banglie wrote to the outside world.  Four months ago, Lu was elected as the new director of Baoyuesi village, Zhijiang City, Hubei Province and he has encountered many setbacks after assuming his post.

The letter said: "Since taking the path to defend people's rights, I have never regretted or retreated.  But today, having accomplished something, I actually don't know how to proceed!  I don't want to be a deserter.  But what can I do other than desert?"

At the replacement election of village director on April 20, 2004, Lu Banglie got 80% of the votes and won by an absolute majority.  Prior to that, Lu had initiated a 'movement' to successfully remove the previous village director.  Thus, he is regarded as a director who won his post by being a 'rebel.'

Yet, when Lu Banglie attempted to "clear up the finances" as he had promised the villagers, he found himself totally isolated.

The other members of the village committee are stayovers from before and they do not support him.  Although Lu has been on the job for five months already, he still seems to be an "illegal" village director.  The Civil Affairs Bureau has not yet given him a certificate of election; the village committee's official seal is in the hands of a deputy director.  There is nothing that he could do.  He relied on the Village Committee Organization Regulations and related measures, none of which mention the detail as to who gets to keep the official seal.

On April 26, Lu Banglie called the first villagers' meeting but that was aborted when fewer than half the villagers showed up.  On that day, he entered the village committee office for the first time.  It was completely cleaned out.  Someone even removed the light bulb.

Since assuming his post, Lu has called more than a dozen village affairs meeting.  Since he had no experience being an 'official,' he lost control of those meetings.  When he started to talk, he became tongue-tied without any of the sharpness and intelligence in his writing.  So every meeting ended in a disaster.

"Banglie is a good perosn.  He is honest and  hardworking.  But he is not the material for an official.  He will never win against those people."  Many villagers said so when they saw Lu's problems.

A village cadre said that Lu Banglie has problems with reaction time and ability to express himself.  "Even if he is right, he can only say 123."

The worst thing is while new projects were stalled, the residual problems from the previous village committee continued to arrive one after another.

On June 2, the former village party secretary Zhang Jiaxi sued the former village committee for breach of contract, and Lu Banglie had to appear in court as the legal representative.

On June 13, a person from Zhijiang County came and claimed that the former village committee borrowed 8,000 RMB from him and that money was due and must be repaid.  Lu Banglie said that there was "no money" and the man got mad and said, "You better not let me see you outside."

On August 23, two elderly persons from the next village came to Lu Banglie's home and begged him to repay the 2,000 RMB that the village owed them.  The two people sat there for two days until Lu Banglie broke down and took them to the town government and let them take 1,000 RMB by signing his own name.

Worst yet, Lu Banglie has been assaulted four times by village cadres already since he started working.  This village director who viewed grassroots democracy as the weapon to protect human rights could not even protect his personal safety.

Two university interns Chen Rijiang and Tan Xiangfei witnessed how Lu Banglie was assaulted once: On July 6, Lu Banglie called a business meeting of the village cadres.  Even before the meeting started, the village finance team leader Zhu Xiaozhou demanded payment from the village.  When refused, Zhu punched Lu in the nose and caused bleeding.  Lu picked up a rock to throw at Zhu but missed.  From start to end, not a single other cadre offered to intercede.  Even more ridiculous, after the fight was over, Lu Banglie wiped his nose clean and then continued with the meeting.  After a few more sentences, the village committee member Hu Guizhen started screaming and ripped up the meeting agenda that Lu had prepared.

Two months ago, Lu Banglie had publicly relieved both Zhu Xiaozhou and Hu Guizhen of their village group leader duties.

Actually, ever since Lu Banglie was assaulted in July 26 last year for starting the recall of the former village director, he was used to being beaten.

After being assaulted a second time, a friend suggested: Just go to his home and stab him once, and then it will be all evened out.  But Lu Banglie insisted on pursuing the course of the law.  After the second trial, he "won" the case.  But his legal expenses were more than 4,000 RMB and the other party paid less than 1,600 RMB to him.

Lu Banglie claimed that he had no "enemies" before he began the recall campaign and then got elected himself.

At the same time, Lu Banglie was in dire economic straits.  He was in heavy debt, and he had to worry about having food to eat.  Lu's 82-year-old mother worries about two things everyday: first, will Lu be beaten up again?; second, how much longer will the rice in the vat last?

When Lu Banglie got on the job, he promised that he would follow the Village Organization Regulations and reset the wages based upon evaluation.  By year's end, he will get paid only if his work performance is accepted in an evaluation by the village representatives.  He is the first village director of Baoyuesi Village who has ever made that kind of promise.  At the moment, the village books showed only debt.  When money was needed during the course of work, Lu had to pay out of his own pocket.  Lu had no idea whether he will get any money at the end of the year.  "It is hard to say about the current situation."  When his letter of help was sent out, two university students who came for practical social experience at Baoyuesi Village organized a donation campaign, but the results have not been great.

According to villager Lu Banglin who participated in the village election, Lu Banglie is likely to get re-elected under the present circumstances but he would lose a lot of votes.

As to the problems that Lu Banglie was facing, the agricultural expert Wen Tiejun said that even though elections are supposed to resolve village conflicts, the costs are getting higher and higher.  "The question that needs to be answered is this: Is it because village conflicts exist that popular elections can be used to solve them?  Or is the village election system causing even new and greater conflicts in the villages?"

According to former party official Li Changping who has met Lu Banglie before, the situation was due to design flaws in the village election systems because there are no corresponding systems to protect against clashes with traditional rural culture.  Li Changping did not think that Lu's case was isolated.  He knew a democratically elected village director in Yiwu, Zhejiang who was much more capable than Lu.  That person still got into difficulties and ended up losing his own personal assets of almost 1 million RMB.

On the afternoon of September 27, Zhijiang City people's congress representative Lu Banglie went to the city people's congress standing committee on legal work.  One month ago, he had submitted a "Proposal for finance auditing at Baoyuesi" to a deputy director.  He has also submitted similar proposals to the Bailizhou town party committee and government without any response.  Lu said, "Whether they respond or not is a different matter than whether I propose it or not."

The honest-looking Lu Banglie was actually very insecure.  Among the eight sibling, he is the youngest.  His father passed away when Lu Banglie was seventeen.  When he died, he held Lu Banglie's hand and cried out, "Banglie!"  Obviously, the old man was most concerned about his youngest son.

Because his family was poor, Lu Banglie left shool before graduating from secondary school.  Thereafter, he grew vegetables and got into sales and distribution.  He had been to Beijing and Guangzhou and he never made much money.  According to a business person, the main reason was that "he did not want to fight for small amounts, and he did not know how to make large amounts."

In 2000, Lu Banglie decided to take a 'gamble.'  He sold his land to his fourth brother for 14,000 RMB and then rented 20 mu of land near Beimasi Village to grow a new type of melon.  But there was a drought that year, and he got almost nothing . Someone said that even if it were a bumper harvest, Lu would still not have made any money because that kind of melon had no local demand.  "He is the type of person who is reckless about the consequences," said this person.

Afterwards, Lu Banglie was interviewed by television reporters and he talked about the drought and how the town should think about reducing the local taxes.  But the television broadcast would say that Lu had a relatively good harvest but the town still wanted to help him.  The local villagers then accused Lu Banglie of lying to provide reasons for the town government to keep the high taxes in place.

Angered, Lu Banglie began to petition on the problem of peasant burdens.  One year, he went to Beijing twice.  "During that time, he moved bricks during the day and he read at night.  When he made enough money, he traveled to petition in Beijing," his good friend Chen Minfeng said.

In the eyes of many Baoyuesi villagers, he was a strange person  They could not understand how the young Lu Banglie did not want to be a honest farmer but instead he spent his own money to go all over the place to petition.

In May 2005, he met the former party secretary Li Changping and discussed the "Bailizhou Development Strategy" paper that he had taken a month to write.  The core idea was to re-configure the scattered farmlands and do systematic planting.  In addition, Lu also wrote an article titled "Solving the Three Peasant Problem."

Li Changping thought that Lu had good ideas but they were difficult to implement.  Li also advised Lu to stay and work in Beijing to take care of his livelihood.  "He did not like me at the time," Li Changping told this reporter.  "At the time, I sensed that he would not have a good time when he returns to the village."

Lu Banglie admits that his viewpoints have not been received well.  "He is always thinking about problems that only national leaders think about," said Bailizhou Town party secretary Wang Qingshan.  In retrospect, Lu Banglie said, those were the darkest moments of his life.  Because he saw no hope, he actively sought out people for discussions.

For all the unsuccessful petition campaigns in Lu Banglie's history, there was one counter-example.  In 2000, 248 Bailizhou peasant families were displaced by flooding and each family receive 13,000 RMB in compensation from the government.  By accident, Lu Banglie discovered some doubts in the process and suspected that the town government may be withholding funds.  So he collected signatures and went to China Reform magazine for help.  When he got back, he found out that the town government had given an additional 2,000 RMB to each family.

With this one success, people began to look at Lu differently.  He turned from a "crazy person" into a "capable person."  This success also set the foundation for him to campaign for the village director and people's congress delegate.

In January 2003, Lu Banglie was invited by China Reform to attend a rural construction training class.  There, he attended the lectures by "Three Peasants" expert Wen Tiejun and also met Yao Lifa, the people's congress delegate from Hubei's Qianjaing City which was only about 100 miles away from Bailizhou.  In 1998, Yao entered the city people's congress delegate as an independent and won with the highest number of votes.

"Meeting Yao Lifa was a great event in my life," said Lu Banglie.  From there on, Lu began to turn to grassroots democracy.  In recent years, whenever Lu encountered difficulty in the promotion of democracy, he instintively went to see Yao Lifa for discussions.

To run as an independent candidate, Yao Lifa had listed eight conditions including economic situation, family support and on.  Other than "persistent political fervor", Lu Banglie had nothing else from the list.

But Lu Banglie's "political actions" began all the same.  His first action was to recall the village director.

On June 23, 2003, Lu Banglie submitted a motion to recall village director Lu Wanke.  The reasons were that the director was charging money to handle matters; illegally appointing village cadres; not disclosing village finances and businesses; refusing to implement the Village Committee Organization Regulations.  In explaining the reason for the action, Lu Banglie said it was to prove that if the people are dissatisfied with the village cadres, they can recall them.  "I want to show the power of democracy to the people."

The power was quickly shown.  Out of the 2,152 voters in Baoyusi village, 709 signed to support Lu Banglie's recall proposal, more than the 20% stipulated in the Village Committee Organization Regulations.  Very quickly, Lu Banglie learned the consequences.  Three days after proposing the "recall motion", he was attacked with sticks and poles by three young men.  After Lu Banglie was assaulted, several dozen Baoyuesi residents went for a mass petition at the Zhijiang City government to force Lu Wanke to quit.  Lu Banglie won in the replacement election.  A Baoyuesi villager who voted for Lu Banglie explained his decision: "He may not make us rich, but he genuinely works for the people.  He is not corrupt."

Although Lu Banglie became enemies with the original village director Lu Wanke, he did not think the other person was a "bad man."  "He was also a victim.  He originally wanted to do something for the people, but he turned bad once he got in.  Many village cadres are like that, and the key is that there isn't a good system."

At the end of 2003, Lu Banglie decided to run for the people's congress in Zhijiang City.  He printed 2,500 flyers titled "Please respect the ballot in your hand" with his own money.  The flyer explained all the regulations about the election.  "If the people's congress representatives that you choose with your own hands do not represent the true interests of the people, how will they exercise the power of their positions?"

During that cold winter, Lu Banglie spent three days distributing the flyers to the villagers in the election district.  He even got bit by a dog once.

In the end, more than 4,500 voters deleted the names of the four official candidates and wrote in the name of Lu Banglie in the "other" line.  This made him the first people's congress delegate elected by this method in Yichang City.

After Lu Banglie successfully became a people's congress delegate, the party secretary at Bailizhou town was transferred away.  The reason for the transfer was rumored as follows: a senior leader asked this secretary, "How is it possible that someone with mass support did not make it onto the candidate list?"  There was no response.

After his election success, Lu Banglie attended his first city people's congress meeting.  When the meeting chairman announced the list of directors and asked for opinion, Lu Banglie raised his hand and said that according to the procedure, the list of directors should have been based upon asking for opinions first but no one had asked him.  Furthermore, he said that he had insufficient information about the people on the list and therefore cannot determine if they are qualified.  While Lu spoke, the Bailizhou people's congress chairman was tugging his coat to get him to stop, but Lu ignored him.  Finally, Lu cast the only null vote at this congress.

Baoyuesi village is in Bailizhou town.  It is actually an island in the Changjiang river and has been historically subject to floods.  In 1702, a local person named Lu Feixue decide to build a levee.  He refused to go home or shave his hair for three years and he got down on his knees to beg the people to help.  The levee was successfully constructed and the flooding problems were solved.

Lu Banglie can still remember this story from his youth.  "If a person wants to have some accomplishments, it is necessary to have resolve."

In order to understand the situation of Lu Banglie now, it is necessary to understand the history of Baoyuesi village.

Actually, Lu Banglie was not the first "rebel" village director, nor was the the first one to be beaten up.

Before Lu Banglie planned his "rebellion" against Lu Wanke, he purchased a life insurance policy.  If he should die accidentally, his 82-year-old mother and 6-year-old daughter would receive 180,000 RMB.  This is the biggest expense item for Lu every year.

Lu Banglie said that he did it because of the death of former village director Zhang Jiagui.

In the 1999 village director election, Zhang Jiagui defeated another candidate Zhang Jiaxi who had just lost his job as village party secretary.  Zhang Jiaxi had lost his party job because Zhang Jiagui went through a "petition" about corruption matters.

After Zhang Jiagui became director, the annual per capita tax burden for Baoyuesi villagers decreased by more than 100 RMB.  From that time onward, the Baoyuesi villagers paid more and more attention to elections.  "They will believe in it only when democracy brings them observable benefits," said Lu Banglie.

In September 2001, Zhang Jiagui was assaulted in his home during the period when he was insisted in auditing the Baoyuesi village financial ledgers.

Someone called 110 using the name of villager Lu Wenjia.  But the police never came that night.  Two days later, the dozens of pear trees belonging to Lu Wenjia were all chopped down by someone.

Three months later in January 2002, Zhang Jiagui died from a heart disease.  Three years later, Zhang Jiagui's mother Bao Chunxiu said, "My son died of anger and frustration."  The case of the assault on Zhang Jiagui remains unsolved to this day.

Lu Banglie believes that the death of Zhang Jiagui cast a huge psychological shadow into the hearts of the Baoyuesi villagers.  Many villagers were worried about retaliation and did not dare speak out about the chaos in the village.  "If no one stands up to speak, then the people will be in total despair."

The financial problems of Baoyuesi Village remain the "core" of Lu Banglie's administration.  When he was elected on April 20 with the highest number of votes, it meant that he could finally deal with the matter personally.

When the first meeting was held on April 26, Lu Banglie opened the door into the village committee finance office and saw a most alarming scene: the place was a mess with ripped ledger books strewn all over the floor.  On the door of a shelfcase, there were these words written with chalk: "Be careful about the bomb inside.  You should know yourself."

When Lu Banglie ran to be elected, he promised to clear the books, build an economic co-op, set up a senior citizen association and so on.  But once on the job, he was stalled at the very first step.  For more than ten years now, there have been many village committees but there has never been any official transition.

Lu Banglie said that he won the votes because of his promise to clear the books.

But once Lu Banglie got on the job, he found that he had seriously underestimated the difficulties in clearing the books.

In May, Lu Banglie held the first villagers' meeting concerning the debt problems.  The villager Lu Xiaoshi proclaimed that he wants "the corrupt elements to be dragged out."  That night, dozens of his pear trees were chopped down by unknown persons.

According to the figures posted on the finance notice board, the Baoyuesi village committee has debts of 1.52 million RMB.  In the opinion of Bailizhou town party secretary Wang Qingshan, this is not a large sum because the average debt of the villages in Bailizhou is 2 million RMB.

Speaking about the debt, Zhang Chunlan was heartbroken.  He had been the party secretary in Baoyuesi village for more than 30 years.  In 1982, when he turned his job over to his successor, there was still more than 200,000 RMB in collective wealth.  Now, there are only debts.  "Those prodigal sons wasted all the wealth!"

According to village committee deputy director and accountant Zhang Daiyou, about one-third of the debt was loans used to pay taxes to the town.  For a long time, the Baoyuesi village had to take out high-interest loans in order to meet their town tax quotas.  The village cadres who handle that can get a 10% commission, but meanwhile the debts were piling up.

It is not true that there has been no auditing of the Baoyuesi village accounts.  In 2000, at the persistent urging of village director Zhang Jiagui, the Bailizhou town government sent the former financial administrator director Hu Qingguo to lead an audit of the financial accounts of Baoyuesi village in the years 1997, 1998 and 1999.  Hu spent one month and figured out the problems, which included entertainment expenses and gifts by the village and town cadres.  "Many of those slips were faked," said Hu Qingguo.  "At the time, the audit report was a thick volume.  Every item was investigated clearly and even the solution method was written down."

But at the critical moment, Hu Qingguo was transfered to work on surveying and measuring land usage.

"Back then, Zhang Jiagui came to my office and wanted to read the report.  I said, 'I cannot show it to you now, but you will see it eventually.'" said Hu Qingguo.

But several months later, Zhang Jiagui died from an illness.  That became Hu Qingguo's eternal regret.  But "if the leadership did not say to release it, how dare I do it?"

In January 2003, parts of the financial details investigated by Zhang Jiagui himself were published.  But the Baoyuesi villagers said that only numbers were published, and there was no indication of where the problems were or who was responsible.  "One year, our village expenses were 520,000 RMB.  Where did the money go?  Nobody was talking," said a villager.

As of now, the 2000 audit report still has not been released to the people of Baoyuesi village.

In the recently completed summer agricultural tax collection period, Baoyuesi collected only 30,000 RMB, less than half of the quota.  It is ranked as the worst village in Bailizhou town.  In the eyes of Bailizhou party secretary Wang Qingshan, the principal reason was that "individual village cadres" did not work together.  Lu Banglie believes that if the village problems are investigated and cleared up, then the villagers would be willing to borrow money to remit the taxes.

As Bailizhou town is working to implement the central government's request to publish village affairs, Lu Banglie thinks that it would be an good opportunity to deal with the financial books of the village.  According to Wang Qingshan, the work is oriented towards what happened after the tax reform of 2002 and therefore would not affect anything before then.  In the opinion of Wang Qingshan, the most urgent matter at Baoyuesi village is "the problem of organizational unity" and not "the problem of auditing the books."

As for the prospects of clearing up the accounts, a retired teacher in Baoyuesi village thinks that it was unlikely to occur.  This is not just a problem about Baoyuesi.  "There are more than 40 villages in the town. If Baoyuesi takes the lead, what will the other villages do?  Can the people up there deal with it?"  "Zhang Jiagui gave up his life and he could not the books audited.  How will Lu Banglie get it done?"  Earlier, when Lu made that election promise, a friend warned him about it.  But for Lu Banglie who is used to charging straight ahead, there is no retreat.  He said that this was his second greatest "gamble" after his 2000 attempt to grow melons.

(TIME AsiaAn Activist's Tale.  By Matthew Forney.  October 24, 2005.

Lu Banglie was once a hero in Beijing. A 34-year-old farmer from the rice-basket province of Hubei, he was praised last year by the Communist Party-owned China Youth Daily for leading a movement to impeach a village chief who residents say was corrupt. The paper told Lu's tale: launching a five-day hunger strike, getting roughed up by thugs and investigating political conditions in other villages across China. When his campaign finally forced his village chief to resign in 2003, the paper said, Lu emerged as "the front runner of peasant grassroots democracy."

That was then. Last week, Lu was beaten unconscious in the Pearl River Delta town of Taishi, where— accompanied by a journalist from the Guardian, a British newspaper—he had gone to help residents impeach their own village chief. "Three hundred meters from the village headquarters, we were stopped by men on motorcycles and the car was suddenly surrounded by many people," Lu told TIME last week, speaking in a safe house in Wuhan. "They recognized me and said 'That's the one!' I guess they'd been shown my picture. They opened the door and dragged me out by my hair. I saw someone in a police uniform. They started beating me with their fists and feet. I lost consciousness almost immediately. That's all I remember for many hours." Lu woke in a car being driven to his home 12 hours away.

Lu says he has now been branded a "black hand" by provincial party officials—the epithet used for labor leaders of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. His fall from favor underscores the frictions that accompany China's uneven efforts to modernize. While the country has progressed economically, its authoritarian government has not made the same progress in building open and accessible political and legal institutions. Concerned about a rise in mass protests, Beijing continues to promise change. An annual meeting of the party's Central Committee last week concluded with calls for "social harmony" and a commitment to "ruling the country based on laws."

It's a fine sentiment. But even those who take the Party at face value know how difficult it can be to get local governments to follow Beijing's lead. China does have enlightened laws on the books, but often they are ignored. Activists like Lu seek to ensure the laws are obeyed. "We're seeing a real grassroots movement organized around local abuses, and that's never happened in China's 25 years of reform," says Robin Munro of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a workers' rights group. Campaigners are working in the one area where China has true democracy. The vast majority of villages are allowed to elect their local chiefs, although many elections remain improperly run or rigged. Activists hope to tilt the balance toward fairness.

If not for floods along the Yangtze River in 1998, Lu might still be tilling his family's paddies. The floods left 200 fellow villagers homeless, and the government promised $2,000 per family in compensation. Lu says because of local corruption, not all the money reached the families. In 2001, Lu bought a copy of China Reform-Rural magazine, which educates peasants on their legal rights. He visited the magazine's office in Beijing and talked with its editors. Later, the magazine invited Lu to a conference on peasant rights with China's leading legal scholars. "I realized then that I could use the Village Committee Organizing Law to impeach my village chief," Lu recalls. Eleven months later he did just that, and even won a seat on his "township people's congress" as an independent write-in candidate.

In March, Lu moved to a factory in the Delta, packing Christmas trees for export to America. A reporter invited him to a restaurant in Guangzhou to meet with legal reformers. They discussed Taishi, where villagers were trying to impeach their chief amid corruption allegations. Lu decided to help. On July 31, he addressed the villagers from atop a heap of bricks, which gave the movement its informal name: Rubble Pile Democracy.

After that, things got ugly. Officials started the impeachment process, then stopped it. In early August, residents surrounded their village committee building to prevent the removal of account books they said would prove corruption. On Sept. 12, police drove the demonstrators away. Roughly 30 people were arrested and 10 remain in custody. Several dozen "hooligans" that Taishi residents believe are paid by local officials now terrorize the village threatening to attack anyone who, like Lu, tries to enter or leave. "Now they're there every day, intimidating people into removing their names from the impeachment petition," Lu says. The village chief, Chen Jinsheng, declined to be interviewed by TIME.

Meanwhile, Beijing has ordered newspapers to cease coverage of Taishi. "The central government may not approve of the excessive tactics of the local government," writes Fan Yafeng, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "but it basically wants the situation controlled." Lu says he'll take his work elsewhere, despite the risk. "Other places can benefit from my experience," he says, "and I've bought life insurance."

Related link: Phoenix Weekly Interviews Lu Banglie