BBC TwoNewsnight
Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Thursday, 18 October 2007 11:55 UK
White Horse Village - changing China

First broadcast October 2007

By Carrie Gracie
BBC Newsnight

If they force us out of our homes, we'll beat them up. Like peasant rebels in history, there's nothing else we can do. With sticks and bars, we'll lock them in the house and beat them to death. Then someone higher up will have to intervene.

White Horse Village
The valley floor is filling up with grandiose administrative buildings

China's economic miracle seems to have got dented on its way to White Horse Village.

The speaker is a farmer in his 50s, voice trembling with emotion, sheaves of legal documents spilling from his arms. He's standing in a yard of mudbrick houses with a throng of neighbours all clamouring to express their rage.

When we started our series 16 months ago, we were told White Horse Village would be transformed into a city within three years: tower blocks on the rice fields, a high school turning out the global citizens of the 21st Century, and a motorway through the mountains to deliver them to the outside world.

One part of this vision has arrived. The new headquarters for the Communist Party and government soars above the ragged washing lines.

Vast and grey, it makes a predictable statement about the might of the one party state.

The local leaders are impatient for the rest of their city to take shape below but at the moment they can't even move into their headquarters because of the sullen hovels in front.

Farmers here are rather backward. They don't have much idea of what a modern city is all about
Tang Hongyong
vice governor

To be shouted at by angry farmers on the way to work would be an unthinkable loss of face and the farmers should be long gone by now anyway. The plans show clipped greenery and edifying slogans here; a mini version of Tiananmen Square.

Normally the communist leadership gets what it wants. Chairman Mao said revolution was not a dinner party and his successors take a similarly robust view when it comes to transforming a nation of farmers into a 21st Century superpower.

The people must be given what the Party believes to be in their interests.

But something's gone wrong with this top down style of politics. White Horse Village is no longer prepared to make the sacrifices the Party chooses for it.

The villagers feel they've been tricked once too often. They were told the new city would make them rich and urban.

A house in White Horse Village
Farmers have been told to move out of their homes or face eviction

But when they surrendered their farmland, it became commercial real estate overnight and they saw none of the profit.

The new homes, shop fronts and jobs they were promised have not materialised. With the future so elusive, they are reluctant to give up the past. The government's terms are so unacceptable as to be almost absurd.

They've told the farmers to move out of their homes within three months or face forcible eviction, but without building them any homes to go to.

Every time the police have turned up with the demolition crew, the farmers have stood their ground.

"We farmers have no troops to call up. We don't have guns. We don't have swords. But if they want to do things by force, I'll put my life on the line," said Jin Liangcheng, a local farmer.

It's strong language, but the grim determination on the faces around me looks genuine.

Even according to official figures there are more than 70,000 cases of violent protest across China every year, and this region of searing temperatures and chilli cauldrons has a reputation as the most hot tempered of all.

We'll fight to our last breath

The official in overall charge of the new city is county vice governor Tang Hongyong. He has an emollient manner but his underlying message is firm.

"Farmers here are rather backward. They don't have much idea of what a modern city is all about. They want a piece of open space and a vegetable plot. They're not used to the idea of living in an apartment block. So the process of building a new town is also about changing the farmers' way of thinking," said Mr Hongyong.

Mr Tang points out that urbanisation is painful everywhere in the world.

What he does not dwell on is that the valley floor is filling up with grandiose administrative buildings and real estate but not a single apartment block to rehouse the villagers nor a viable piece of land for them to build on themselves.

White Horse Village is the China President Hu made his priority at this week's Communist Party Congress in Beijing, the brooding hinterland of impoverished farmers left behind in the rush to coastal development.

Chinese farmer
Farmers in White Horse Village are concerned for their livelihoods

The local leadership sees Beijing's concern as a green light to its schemes of urban development.

But the message from the top is open to interpretation. The Party does want urbanisation and city jobs for hundreds of millions of farmers but it expressly forbids local government building extravagant headquarters, wasting farmland or bullying farmers.

In White Horse Village, they believe Beijing is on their side.

"If we can't sort it out here, we'll go to the capital and petition the central leaders. They'll support us. Even if we have to beg for rice, tapping all the way with a stick, we'll go. We'll fight to our last breath," said Jin Qingshi, another farmer.

Their conviction is fierce, but Beijing has seen many petitioners before them. The diggers and the bulldozers may hang back for now, but every new tower block and motorway in China is standing on what was once somebody's house or fields.

Individuals may struggle to control their own destinies amid the huge forces that compel them, but China's not changing course for White Horse Village.


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