Authors of farm expose in the dock

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:00am

County cadre suing for libel tells a court he did not gouge farmers nor torture them when they protested

A court in Anhui has begun hearing a libel case against the authors of a best-selling book which exposed the plight of peasants in China. The claim has been brought by a former county Communist Party secretary who accuses them of making false accusations.

The widely watched trial opened yesterday in the Fuyang Intermediate People's Court. Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao are being sued by Zhang Xide, formerly party secretary of Linquan county and now vice-chairman of the Fuyang People's Political Consultative Conference. Mr Zhang claims descriptions of him in the book were false and have damaged his reputation. He is demanding 200,000 yuan in compensation from the authors.

The book, An Investigative Report of Chinese Farmers, carries vivid descriptions of the suffering of Anhui farmers in the 1990s and sold more than 150,000 copies within weeks of its publication in March.

It was later banned but remains on sale in many bookstores, and counterfeit copies continue to circulate.

In addition to the ban, the mainland media was warned not to report on the book. As a result, the media have not reported on the lawsuit.

In one chapter of the book, Chen and Wu tell how farmers in Wangying village, Linquan county, were persecuted by officials when they petitioned the central government about the exorbitant fees they were being made to pay. The chapter recounted the torture of farmers' leaders, a crackdown the authors wrote had been ordered by Mr Zhang.

In court yesterday, the plaintiff denied he had imposed exorbitant fees on farmers or persecuted the petitioners. He also said the authors had hurt him by describing him as a 'short and stout fellow who uses foul language'.

He presented documents from the Fuyang government which he said would show he had not mistreated the farmers nor persecuted them.

Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, for Chen and Wu, said the documents did not prove anything. 'These documents presented by the plaintiff cannot count as evidence,' Mr Pu told the court.

'In Fuyang, [we just had a scandal] of fake milk powder. [This fake milk powder] came with government documents [when it was sold by the producers], but the documents were not in line with the facts,' he said.

Substandard milk powder recently caused the deaths of at least 12 babies in Fuyang and malnutrition in scores of others.

Under cross-examination by Mr Pu, the plaintiff read out the written testimony of six witnesses - three police officers and three government officials who had worked with Mr Zhang - in an effort to prove he did not order any torture of the farmers.

But Mr Pu said it was pointless asking a police chief or a detention centre chief to prove they had not tortured prisoners or used force during the crackdown.

Yesterday's trial attracted more than 100 farmers, who travelled several hours from Linquan county on tractors and other farm vehicles to support the two authors.

According to witnesses, only about a dozen farmers were able to attend the hearing, with most seats in the public gallery taken up by cadres and government officials sent by the local authorities.

Asked why they wanted to attend the hearing, a farmer waiting outside the court house said: 'They are suing [the people] who speak for us.'

Another farmer said: 'These are our defence lawyers, they are fighting for us.'

The court hearing will continue today. Many of the farmers who have come to support the authors said they would be willing to testify in court even at the risk of facing official vengeance.