Beijing should step in to resolve rural unrest
Wen Jiabao has been dubbed the 'People's Premier' because of his willingness to meet ordinary people. Reports that he has intervened on occasion to sort out their grievances with employers and local authorities have done that image no harm.
Only this week a photograph of Mr Wen sharing a laugh with ordinary Guangzhou citizens was splashed across major mainland newspapers and overseas media, including this paper.
On this occasion, however, it stood in ironic contrast to the widely publicised confrontation between the people of the Guangdong village of Taishi and the local authorities, which continued while Mr Wen was touring Guangdong cities.
It remains unclear whether the premier knows about the Taishi protests, over the alleged theft of funds by the village head. Both Mr Wen and the central government have remained silent despite extensive overseas media coverage of the protests over the past few weeks.
Officials in Beijing have followed their usual practice of leaving local social unrest to local authorities to handle, apparently believing that these protests are no different from other incidents.
Many mainland academics have argued otherwise. The Taishi protests are the epitome of the widespread social discontent at grass-roots level, particularly in rural areas where corruption is rampant. But unlike thousands of other similar protests, they have received special attention from academics and official media - mainly because the villagers have stuck to a smart strategy. They have adopted non-violent and non-confrontational tactics, including hunger strikes, have employed lawyers to advise them and have gained the attention of domestic and overseas media.
The local authorities have reacted strongly from the beginning, using force to try to tame the protests and citing the usual excuse that most of the villagers have been misled by a few troublemakers. This was to be expected. The authorities, whether central or local, treat any protest with great suspicion and their first reaction is to crack down without looking into the reasons.
But as Zhongshan University professor Ai Xiaoming said in an open letter to Mr Wen, she is convinced the villagers were only exercising their civil rights and were not being used by troublemakers. They were fighting for their personal economic benefits. Times had changed and even farmers were aware of their human rights, she said.
She wrote to Mr Wen after rights activist Yang Maodong, who advised the villagers in their struggle, went missing last Tuesday. Activist sources fear he is in police custody.
The day before, more than 1,000 riot police stormed the government office in Taishi. They were reported to have taken away dozens of villagers who were guarding accounting records and other files that may prove their village head was corrupt. Village cadres also removed some of the files. This raised villagers' suspicions after the township government that oversees Taishi announced it would begin dismissal proceedings against the village head.
The Taishi protests have attracted great attention and support from mainland academics. Many believe the protests could be a landmark in the development of grass-roots democracy. The villagers have shown they are well advised and organised and determined to defend their rights. The crackdown by local authorities is likely to make matters worse rather than better.
It is time the central government began sending its own teams to investigate the growing unrest in the countryside and the response by the local authorities. Taishi would be a good place to start. If there is any substance in the villagers' grievances, corrupt officials should be punished.