New breed of residents confounds the 'comeback cadre'
Shi Honglin had little reason to celebrate when he was reappointed party chief of Baoguantun village last year, 11 years after being sacked in the wake of complaints to the county government.
Mr Shi had been party chief of the village in Nanpi county, one of the poorest parts of Hebei province , for 10 years, since 1984.
Like many village officials at that time, he collected taxes and levies from farmers and, in his own words, 'organised' farmers working on local infrastructure projects.
'We had to meet targets given to us by our superiors and I had to collect the fees and taxes,' he said.
His story is typical of many village chiefs. Farmers could not bear the extortionate fees and levies, and petitioned the county and city governments.
When it became obvious there would only be more clashes if Mr Shi stayed, he was removed. 'When there are 10 petitioners against you, you have to go,' he said.
Like many village chiefs with good connections to senior officials, Mr Shi was given a job in the county government. He could have stayed until his retirement, but the county government decided to send him back to his native village, now home to 4,000 people, to take up his old job as party chief.
Mr Shi, 52, might have made a comeback, but the golden days were long gone. 'Back then, a party chief had a high status. Everybody came to beg you for something. These days they don't even take a look at you,' he said.
He said it was more difficult to 'manage' the village nowadays. 'In the old days, when I punched the table, people would shut up,' he said. 'These days if I punch the table, someone else will punch the table even harder than me.'
Mr Shi is still troubled by petitioners and says he no longer knows how to 'deal' with them, describing them as 'just a bunch of troublemakers making ridiculous claims'.
'We cannot use the old methods anymore; this is illegal. I've spent so much time thinking about the problems of the countryside. I think we need a new mindset to deal with villagers.
'We are asked to 'rule by law' but how you 'rule by law' is pretty vague. I think maintaining social order in villages is a serious problem faced by China's countryside.'
Mr Shi said the scrapping of agricultural tax had made his life very difficult, even though it had been welcomed by farmers. He wanted to talk to local water resources authorities because half of the village lacked proper irrigation, but there were no funds available for him to treat officials to dinner.
And he has now been ordered to give the village a facelift since Hebei plans to create a handful of 'civilised' villages in response to central government calls for the building of a 'new socialist countryside'. This would involve sealing the village's main mud road, as other 'civilised' villages had done.
Mr Shi believed easing the water shortage was more important, but he knows many villages would fix the road first.
'A village chief usually stays in office for about three years and sealing a road and improving the look of the village is something that everybody can see,' he said. 'Every villager will say you are a good cadre if you give the village a facelift. If you improve irrigation, only farmers who are short of water will say that you are good.'