Activist has already seen the worst
Li spoke with Mimi Lau
Li Biyun is no longer intimidated by threats of torture and death. The petite 44-year-old woman has endured years of hardship while fighting for land rights and fair elections in her hometown of Rongli village, under Foshan city in Guangdong. From a hospital bed in the city's Shunde district, she recently talked about how she was made to suffer brutal physical abuse, harassment, discrimination, surveillance and detention for her outspokenness.
Her story, which dates back to 2009, is in many ways a stark contrast to that involving another Guangdong village, Wukan, where residents last year staged massive demonstrations against land seizures by the local government and were eventually successful in securing democratic village elections and ousting corrupt officials.
Despite Li's best efforts, Rongli villagers haven't been so lucky - their land was seized and village residents have been beaten.
Hoping to get into a better position to make her case for Rongli, Li sought a seat as a Shunde district representative to the Guangdong People's Congress in the September elections. Her support in the village was strong, but Shunde authorities charged her with 'undermining elections'.
At a hearing in February, a district court said there was a lack of evidence against her and ordered further investigation. She awaits the court's verdict while being held in a hospital ward, where she is getting treatment for injuries sustained while standing up for what she believes is right.
How did your land-grab battle begin?
I started petitioning when I was 41. Back then, I worked as a freelance bookkeeper. In January 2009, I returned to Rongli for the Lunar New Year holiday, and we received a notice of land seizure.
One day I saw many people, including elderly women, being beaten at a construction site, so I called the police. But the men in uniform treated the local people's demonstration like it was a joke. The police stood by and watched people being beaten and our land being taken away.
Villagers without land either stayed unemployed or left to seek work elsewhere. I petitioned different levels of government - Foshan, Guangzhou and Guangdong - but all they did was shift responsibility around and ignore my complaint.
At the same time, I became the subject of repeated physical assaults, threats, surveillance and arbitrary detention, in the authorities' bid to silence me.
How is your health now?
In 2010 and 2011, I suffered a broken tailbone, internal damage to my stomach and gall bladder, and multiple injuries to my cervical vertebra. My thighs and arms were covered with bruises. In November, I was bed-ridden, puking blood and always dizzy. I can still hardly get out of bed.
Have you chosen to stay single?
I have never been married, but I have dated before. Some people think I will bring bad luck upon them. I feel helpless, but I'm not lonely - there's no time to feel lonely. My every move is closely watched. Local people who talk to me often get into trouble. I don't want to complicate the lives of others. It's OK that they don't want to speak to me.
Why did you choose to walk down such a difficult path?
I don't care what happens to me anymore. I guess I could have given up a few years ago, when they broke my back.
Never could I have imagined that I would be where I am today. I'm just an ordinary village woman. I'm single and I come from a humble family, without any money or any power.
But I can't stand the way local governments think they can bully anyone they want, take our land and beat people up.
The reality today is that my health has been ruined, and I need to accept it. I don't want to see another person have to go through the same ordeal I have.
Have you thought about choosing an easier path?
They will not let me choose another path. They use smear tactics, stop me from petitioning legally, stalk me and threaten my friends and family. They've done all they can to keep me from living a normal life; they've left me no choice.
Will you continue fighting, even if the public ceases to show interest in your plight?
Yes, I will. I am not alive, and yet death has not come either. There is no turning back for me, or room for resentment. My back is already ruined. There is not much I can do. As a village woman, I have already suffered brutal assaults; I have been discriminated against, prosecuted and harassed.
Torture and the threat of death, to me are no longer effective. There is no ordeal I haven't already suffered.
But I believe the situation will improve one day. It's important to have faith, or there is nothing to live for. I have my supporters, so I'm not going to give up, no matter how useless it is.
Why did Rongli fail to get its land back?
The local government is too powerful. They used me as an example to teach others a lesson. I started with good health and a respectable job - look where I am now after fighting for land rights. My sister, who tried to appeal on my behalf, was divorced by her husband. My younger brother was detained for 15 days and badly beaten for helping me. The Ronggui township government [which oversees Rongli] threatens local villagers who petition, saying their sons will be jobless, their businesses will face more taxes, and their operating licences will be revoked. Villagers are scared of these threats - the government is messing with people's personal lives and their sources of income.
How does Rongli differ from Wukan?
Rongli and Wukan are very similar. They are both big villages with more than 10,000 people. We had the same problems with land and corrupt local governments. But Wukan was luckier. That village is now full of hope, but for Rongli things are all dark, even though we are more economically developed than Wukan.
What does it take for village elections to succeed?
As Premier Wen Jiabao said, rural autonomy requires that people be organised, but the local government is abusing its power in order to scare the people into not exercising their election rights.
Why did you to decide to run as a representative to the People's Congress?
I ran because I wanted the government to take people's views seriously. I also wanted to have my voice heard, and to make sure the authorities obey the law. The government should not turn land and economic disputes into political battles against civilians. These are problems that should be handled according to laws.
How was the election handled in September?
In Rongli village, I received 626 nominations. I had the most support out of five of us, two of whom were selected by the government. There are more than 7,400 eligible voters in my village, but local authorities did not promote the election. On election day, September 22, they invited about 40 village representatives to cast votes on behalf of the entire village. They also had people on the polling grounds defame me by saying I urinated outside a Guangdong government building and that I was unqualified to be a People's Congress representative because I was in poor health. I protested over the manipulation, but I was stopped by Rongli authorities. They arrested me for 'undermining elections'.
What is your legal status now?
I'm in limbo. Since my initial hearing in February, the court has delayed three times and it has yet to say if I'm guilty. Instead, it wants to release me on probation. But I turned that down. I'm being held in a medical facility, awaiting my verdict, because of my health.
What are your plans?
I hope that justice is realised and I am exonerated. If I were healthy again after being judged not guilty, I would return to the house I built in Rongli. The village did not give me land that I was entitled to, so I built a tiny house on land my mother left me in 2006. But they said it was an illegal construction and cut off my water and electricity.
I don't know what is going to happen next, to be honest, but I believe my resistance will pay off one day, despite all the suffering.