Beijing should step in to stop Taishi violence
For a while, there was a glimmer of hope that the Taishi villagers' bid to remove their elected chief could become 'a model of local self-government in the Pearl River Delta'. That was how the local edition of the People's Daily once described the move by villagers to invoke the law for this purpose.
Such hopes have now been dashed. Instead of allowing the rule of law to take its course, violence has been used to suppress the villagers' demands for their village chief to be held accountable for the alleged misuse of village funds.
Things began to take a turn for the worse in mid-September, when the Panyu Public Security Bureau issued a strongly worded notice denouncing the villagers' protests. It condemned the row as one engineered by 'activists with ulterior motives'. The evidence that led to such a conclusion has not been disclosed. But there was speculation that officials were suspicious of the involvement of outsiders in providing villagers with legal advice and the publicity that the row has received in overseas media.
Whatever the causes, violence against the villagers and others has since escalated. It is as if the 'verdict' on the nature of the row has been used to sanction all means of suppression.
Previously, force and water cannons were used to disperse villagers who were staging peaceful protests outside government offices. Now, lawyers, academics and journalists trying to help them or to simply find out what is happening have been attacked by mobs, apparently with official approval.
Last Saturday, a legislator from Hubei who has been providing legal advice to the villagers was dragged out of his car and beaten up by thugs, after uniformed policemen conveniently left the scene. Similarly, a South China Morning Post reporter and a French journalist who tried to enter the village were physically threatened and manhandled by a mob.
These attacks are inexcusable. A state of lawlessness now seems to exist.
So far, no senior official from the provincial or central government has commented on the attacks. No attempt has been made to dispel the perception that local officials are using their authority - lawful or otherwise - to suppress opposition and to intimidate outsiders. The situation cries out for urgent action to be taken by either the provincial or central governments.
The village is south of Guangzhou. It is close to scores of residential compounds popular among Hong Kong people. Guangdong officials have billed their province as one that attaches great importance to the rule of law, rightly believing that this will boost its competitiveness. But the rule of law involves allowing people to settle their differences with the government fairly and by lawful means.
The intellectuals who have tried to help the villagers sought to bring the affair to the attention of Premier Wen Jiabao in an open letter when he toured Guangdong last month. Even though the letter might not have reached Mr Wen, he should be aware of it by now because of the publicity it has since generated. For whatever reasons, he has not spoken out publicly on the matter.
Mr Wen could now help by doing so. He cannot be expected to attend to every local row. But abuse of authority by local officials is an issue that the central government has pledged to tackle - and Taishi is a notable example.
The central government should send a team to investigate the unrest in Taishi, punishing the responsible officials if the villagers' grievances are substantiated - and clearing the officials' names if they are not.
In any case, all those responsible for using or permitting the unlawful use of force should be dealt with according to law. The bid by the Taishi villagers to hold their chief to account could help strengthen grass-roots democracy and improve local governance on the mainland. Their efforts should not be trampled on by wayward officials.