Victory for villagers in battle over 'rigged poll' for chief
Complaints about a rigged election for a village head have prompted authorities in the Tianjin county of Ninghe to scrap the results and hold another poll in the next three months.
More than 200 villagers from Zhaowenmin protested outside the Ninghe county government office on Saturday, alleging Friday's election was marred by intimidation, false ballot papers and attempts to buy votes.
County authorities appointed officials to investigate the matter and, after finding fraudulent voting slips, ordered on Sunday that a new election be held.
Their decision was seen by some as support for the villagers' demands for 'a clean election' and 'returning farmland', but some village representatives were concerned the new election would also be rigged.
Farmers' representative Huo Changsong, 34, said even though more than 600 local residents had not voted in the election, the village committee had found a regulatory loophole to ratify the poll results.
'In order to achieve enough ballots, our current village party head, Feng Hesong, mobilised 200 locals to force villagers to hand over their ballot papers,' he said.
Mr Huo said the 600 villagers who abstained from voting did so because they had heard that at least a quarter of the ballot papers had been 'entrusted' to others.
Other residents said the party chief's agents duped, threatened and bribed them to vote for the preferred candidate.
Fu Heming, 54, said one Mr Feng's men offered her 800 yuan for her family's four ballot papers. 'First of all, a gangster told me to vote for Huo Lisong, who is Feng's man. Then he offered me 800 yuan after I refused to promise him anything,' she said.
When Ms Fu rejected the money, she was threatened by Huo Lisong's 70-something mother, Shang Chunjiang. 'She threatened to destroy my two electric welding stalls if I did not to vote for her son. That's why I did not vote,' she said.
Wang Shuyun, 50, said she refused to vote because she found so many ballots had been handed over to proxies. 'They are so ignorant. You could find signatures in exactly the same handwriting among the ballot papers,' Ms Wang said. 'Why would I vote in such a dishonest poll?'
Liu Tairong, a 60-year-old party member, said she also refused to vote because the rights to 125 hectares of farmland were sold to industrial enterprises during Mr Feng's two terms in office, but the community had not benefited from the transaction.
'None of the villagers has ever been given one fen from it,' she said. 'We knew something was wrong when we found about 40,000 cubic metres of soil had been dug out and sold to an industrial site in January.'
Zhang Zhichao, another of the farmers' representatives, said construction workers told them 2.5 yuan was paid for each cubic metre of soil. 'It's a waste,' Mr Zhang said. 'The soil is very rich and suitable for farming because it used to be a fish farm. The clay has more than 17 years' of fish manure in it.'
Mr Feng is under investigation for embezzling community funds so could not stand for re-election.
The protesters said they were backing 61-year-old Huo Shenglin in the next poll, in the hope that he would fight for their land and soil. But they were also concerned that Mr Feng could still influence the result because he was still the village's party chief
The situation is similar to that in Guangdong's Taishi village, where residents were repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to dismiss their village head.
Outspoken human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was not optimistic about the prospects for the Zhaowenmin villagers' struggle for democracy.
'They technically just won the first round, but it was an exceptional case.
'Villagers in Zhaowenmin are lucky because their county authority is willing to handle their complaint. But I don't think it is a common phenomena on the mainland,' Mr Gao said.
He said villagers would succeed in enforcing their rights only when the central government decided to improve the political system.