BBC TwoNewsnight
Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Thursday, 1 March 2007
White Horse Village - changing China

First broadcast February 2007

By Carrie Gracie
BBC Newsnight

There's a hill in White Horse Village that simply shouldn't be there.

White Horse Village
Some White Horse villagers are defying efforts to move them out
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 strands of bamboo and farmhouses clustered on its lower slopes.

Eight months ago, the demolition crews and diggers had already 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 White Horse High School.

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

The snag

To the east, across the valley floor, the cranes have fallen silent for Chinese New Year.

The labourers went home just before the festival to slaughter their pigs, raise their red lanterns and prepare for the feast. They'll be back to work in a few days, throwing up the government offices, apartment blocks and roads of the new county capital.

But White Horse High School has hit a snag, and rather surprisingly, the snag is politics.

It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that China doesn't 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.

Political battlefields

Xiang Caiguo
[They] must sacrifice a little self-interest, support the new high school and obey the policy
Xiang Caiguo
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're standing in the path of the diggers and explosives teams, refusing to let them pass.

"You must sacrifice a little self-interest, support the new high school and obey the policy," says Xiang Caiguo.

He's the village Communist Party secretary and it's his job to persuade the farmers to obey the Party's will.

He was once a soldier in the People's Liberation Army and carrying an order down the chain of command is second nature. But the farmers have grown suspicious of the language of sacrifice.

Five years ago they were forced to give up their rice fields on the valley floor. Since then, they've seen much of it parcelled out in real estate and sold at 30 times what they were given in compensation.

That's made them think twice about surrendering their homes, and although they don't own the land on which their houses stand, they do own the bricks and mortar.

They're exploring how much power that gives them.

Political theatre

The immediate pretext for the Party secretary's latest round of persuasion is Chinese New Year.

All over the country, Communist bosses deliver rice, oil and fruit to the needy just before the festival, a piece of political theatre designed to demonstrate how much the leadership cares for the ordinary people.

On location: filming begins in Beijing

In White Horse Village, no one has been turning the gifts down, but the farmer I spoke to has heard the accompanying speech 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 tells him. "I've already given up my rice paddy for the school. I've shown my support.

"But I'm 56, and now that I've got no farmland, I've got no means of making a living.

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

"Rights and justice"

Other farmers are angrier, complaining that the Party is only looking after the real estate developers and trying to trick the villagers into cramped terraces and narrow alleys squeezed up against the mountains.

They talk of rights and justice. One told me he was not afraid of being arrested for his opposition. I was surprised to learn that even the Party secretary had doubts.

"The plan needs some changes," he told me. "We need to make the plots for the houses bigger and make the roads wider or people won't be able to carry on a business.

"If we don't get this right, we'll lose the trust of the people."

Holding out for the right terms

Chinese farmer
Farmers in White Horse Village are concerned for their livelihoods
These doubts don't amount to a wholesale rejection of the Party's vision for the new city and its high school. There's no romance about the land here.

The farmers are happy to exchange their way of life for a new one. They're even ready to surrender their houses and their hill if the terms are right.

But there is no meaningful old age pension, unemployment benefit or healthcare provision in the Chinese countryside, and if they don't have space to run a business in future, these villagers have no means of survival.

The next round

It's 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 eats his New Year feast and lights his firecrackers outside a house that should by now be a swimming pool.

And when I ask him whether he'll be spending next New Year in a city terrace, the answer is much less emphatic than might be expected from the loyal servant of the one party state.


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