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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 12:16 GMT
Rural China finds political voice
By Carrie Gracie
BBC News, China

Picture from White Horse Village
Villagers dispute the price of land in their village
In China huge cities are springing up and city jobs are being created for more than 500 million agricultural workers who are no longer needed in the fields. One village in south west China has been designated as the new capital of remote Wuxi county. But progress has not been as smooth as the planners had hoped.

There is a hill in White Horse Village that simply should not be there.

When I first saw it two years ago, it was a handsome hill, the kind of peak that floats in the middle ground of a classical Chinese painting, with terraced fields, magnificent stands of bamboo and farmhouses clustered on its lower slopes.

Eight months ago, the demolition crews and diggers moved in. And the village communist party secretary assured me the hill would be flattened by last October in readiness for the swimming pool, concert hall and tennis courts of the new White Horse High School.

October has been and gone and there is no tennis. Instead the hill still stands - muddy, cratered, strewn with rocks and uprooted bamboos, but a hill nonetheless. Defiantly dominating the village.

Village Resistance

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that China does not really have politics, that it rolls out its economic miracle according to some monolithic master plan and that most people play their allotted roles without complaint.

The Communist Party would dearly like it to be so. It insists that it can represent everyone and resolve all interests. It shrinks from mechanisms which might make political decisions transparent or predictable.

But the hill in White Horse Village is just one of thousands of political battlefields that tell a different story. The farmers there are simply refusing to move out of their houses. And they are standing in the path of the diggers and explosives teams, refusing to let them pass.

Without education or organisation or any history of resistance, these farmers are suddenly talking the language of rights and justice

This is awkward for the village party secretary, Xiang Caiguo. He was once a soldier in the People's Liberation Army and carrying an order down the chain of command is second nature.

Village sign
Diggers were due in months ago

Now in his mid-50s, still trim and upright, he picks his way up through the mud to a house on the side of the hill and begins his lecture on self-sacrifice and the greater good.

But five years ago the farmers were forced to give up their rice fields on the valley floor. Since then, they have seen much of it parcelled out in real estate and sold at 30 times what they were given in compensation. That has made them suspicious of the language of sacrifice.

The Party Secretary

The farmer in this house has heard the lecture many times before. He kicks a log into the fire, inspects the blackened joint of ham on the hook above it and squints at the Party secretary through the smoke.

"I'm not a trouble maker," he says, pointing out that he has already given up his rice fields for the school.

"But I'm not moving out of this house until I'm satisfied with what I'm going to get instead."

I have never heard anyone talk to the Chinese communist party like that. But the party secretary just nods and stares at the floor. Some of the farmers will not give him a hearing at all.

They complain that the authorities are in the pocket of the real estate developers and trying to trick the villagers into cramped terraces and narrow alleys squeezed up against the mountains.

Without education or organisation or any history of resistance, these farmers are suddenly talking the language of rights and justice. And what is even more astonishing, the party secretary turns out to be on the same side.

White Horse Village
Residents are refusing to leave their homes

As we slide back down the hill, he tells me the authorities will have to change the plan, make the houses bigger and the roads wider.

"If we do not get this right," he said, "we'll lose the trust of the people."

These doubts do not amount to a wholesale rejection of the Party's vision for the new city and its high school.

There is no romance about the land in White Horse Village. The farmers are happy to exchange their way of life for a new one. They are even ready to surrender their houses and their hill if the terms are right.

Solution unclear

But there is no meaningful old age pension, unemployment benefit or healthcare provision in the Chinese countryside. If they do not have space to run a business in the new city, they have no means of survival.

It is not clear how this stalemate will be resolved. A new band of political leaders have been sent down from the big city. The villagers say the old lot had no stomach for a fight and wonder how this new team will fare.

And in the meantime, freezing fog shrouds the half built hulks of the new city and the brooding mass of the ancient hill. The Party secretary goes home to dinner in a farmhouse that should by now be a swimming pool.

And when I ask him whether he will be in a city terrace by the time we meet again, his answer is equivocal. And I conclude that there's more politics in China than meets the eye, even among the loyal servants of the one party state.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 3 March, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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