Happiness campaign gasping for air in a sea of misery
None of Guangdong's outspoken newspapers were allowed to report the suicide of 40-year-old Guangzhou villager Li Jie'e, who jumped to her death on May 9 after the authorities took her into custody and illegally demolished her home to make way for a redevelopment project.
As Li was plunging earthwards, several kilometres away Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang was repeating his 'Happy Guangdong' mantra in front of cadres at the opening of the province's 11th Communist Party congress.
In its latest five-year plan, Guangdong has vowed to slow growth to a more manageable 8 per cent, down from an average of 12.5 per cent in recent years, and to focus on helping people find 'real happiness'' - measured by a happiness index.
But in a petition handed to villagers before she leapt five storeys to her death, Li said she was not happy at all.
'My neighbour and I were taken into custody by six strange men on the street on March 20, who didn't wear uniforms and couldn't present any certificate of identification or notice of detention,' she said. 'They locked me in an armed police hospital [for eight days], and I was forced to wear handcuffs and fetters even when I went to sleep or took a shower. I was so scared after seeing armed policemen, all carrying electric batons.'
Li said she later discovered that her three-storey house in Yangji village had been demolished by Guangzhou's Yuexiu District People's Court the day after she was taken into custody. 'I appealed for redress to the village's party committee, the provincial party committee, the Yuexiu district court and the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court, but none of them helped,' she said.
Residents of the richest province may have to accept that they're unlikely to be happier than those living in other provinces because of the limitations of the political system.
Professor Hu Xingdou, a commentator at Beijing Institute of Technology, says the Happy Guangdong theme is a flight of fancy.
'Without a constitutional government and democracy, a 'Happy China' will only be a fable,' Hu says. 'There are so many things authorities could do to improve the public's satisfaction, such as protecting civil rights, building a democratic country, fighting corruption, stopping illegal land grabs and reducing taxes.
'Guangdong cadres don't have the ability to build 'Happy Guangdong' without a fundamental change in the political system. That's a matter of the whole country.'
Business magazine Caijing reported this week that Li was just one of many petitioners whose houses have been demolished by Guangzhou authorities to make way for infrastructure and real estate projects. The city government had earlier earmarked 138 urban villages for demolition by 2020, with villagers' land confiscated and auctioned off to real estate developers.
In 2009, four residents of Yangji village were arrested and jailed for between seven and nine months after they organised a sit-in protest by villagers opposing forced demolitions. Fifteen village households are still refusing to accept government payouts and offers of relocation.
Caijing said that almost all plaintiffs in 29 lawsuits brought by Yangji villagers against forced demolitions had lost their cases and some were still pursuing appeals.
A week after Li's suicide, Guangzhou's Land Resources and Housing Administrative Bureau issued a notice banning demolition and eviction by force, the cutting of households' water and power supplies and the placing of poison outside houses or in neighbourhoods.
Guangzhou commentator Chen Yang poked fun at the ban: 'Without the authorities' protection and the help of those executing the law, how could [forced demolitions] happen?' He urged the government to respect laws that protect individuals' property rights.
Maybe Wang was addressing petitioners when he said at the party congress that the public should cast aside the long-held notion that happiness is a gift from the party and the government.
Left unanswered is what role the Communist Party sees for itself - apart from hanging on to power.