EIGHT months ago, the residents of China's richest village, Daqiuzhuang, were busily preparing for the arrival of the country's most powerful man, Mr Deng Xiaoping. The visit would have been the crowning glory of the village's spectacular rise from rags to riches but Mr Deng never made it and it is now highly unlikely the patriarch will ever try again. In fact, hardly anyone is inclined to visit Daqiuzhuang nowadays. The village that last year boasted up to 3,000 visitors a day has become a ghost town. No one appears to be working at the newly completed ''corporate headquarters'' in its centre, the Mercedes and Cadillacs which used to dominate its dusty streets are conspicuous by their absence, and the only guests at the upmarket Kowloon Hotel are police officers from the nearby city of Tianjin. Neither is there any news in the official press about Daqiuzhuang. Just a few months ago you could not open a newspaper or turn on the television without seeing the village or its enigmatic leader Mr Yu Zuomin. Today you will not find one inch of copy about Daqiuzhuang in Beijing newspapers and Mr Yu appears to have vanished. Numerous requests to interview the gaunt, chain-smoking village headman during the National People's Congress - to which he was a delegate - were all turned down and not a word about Daqiuzhuang was mentioned during a specially-convened NPC press conference on village enterprises. The Government has put a gag order on its most successful propaganda project and most mainland journalists have been only too happy to oblige. After all, the last reporters to visit Daqiuzhuang were reportedly captured and beaten by irate villagers before being forcibly dispatched back to Tianjin. The journalists were investigating reports of a murder in the village and a stand-off between the Tianjin authorities and Mr Yu's local militia who were determined not to allow the police into the village to investigate the crime. The murder reportedly took place last December when an accountant named Zhang at the Wanquan Group, one of the largest companies under the Daqiuzhuang conglomerate, was accused of embezzling thousands, possibly millions, of yuan. The villagers allegedly set up a kangaroo court where Zhang, originally from the neighbouring province of Hebei, was interrogated and eventually beaten to death. After the village committee finally informed the Tianjin authorities of Zhang's ''accidental death'' in early February, a group of officers went to investigate the case. When they became suspicious that the village committee's report was not entirely accurate, they were detained by village security guards and held for 13 hours. The Tianjin police later returned with arrest warrants for four suspects in the murder case but were blocked at the entrance to the village by armed security guards. By now the Tianjin government, which has never enjoyed the best of relations with the upstart little village which falls under its jurisdiction, was becoming increasingly frustrated and reported the case to the State Council. The head of the State Council, Premier Li Peng, apparently urged that the case be resolved as soon as possible and so the Tianjin authorities dispatched about 1,000 armed police to forcibly enter the village. Again they were met by the local militia, some allegedly armed with machine guns, and a standoff ensued. The confrontation reportedly lasted three days before Mr Yu agreed to allow a small group of officers into the village, by which time all four suspects had disappeared. It is believed the four may have been sent abroad, either to Hongkong or Thailand where the village has business interests. The standoff has now eased but the police are still maintaining checkpoints at intersections five kilometres and 15 kilometres outside the village. Wanted posters of the four suspects are pinned up in the booths at the checkpoints but police are only occasionally stopping vehicles as they come in and out of the village. About 20 police officers remain, based in the Kowloon Hotel. They sometimes make patrols but spend most of their time at the hotel drinking tea and playing cards. It is understood the police will stay in the village until either the suspects are handed over or the crime is pinned on someone else. In the meantime, the Daqiuzhuang is caught in a state of limbo while the fate of its leader hangs in the balance. Mr Yu has reportedly come under severe criticism from within the Communist Party for his conduct during the murder investigation. The party stalwart, who has been in charge of the village for as long as anyone can remember, has been accused of setting up his own ''little kingdom'' and of running Daqiuzhuang like a fiefdom. Mr Yu's word is law in Daqiuzhuang and no one dares to contradict him. The 63-year-old's management style is more akin to that of a rural mafia boss than the president of a modern industrial corporation which he claims to be. Early last year, the village committee started to organise a personality cult around Mr Yu which soon grew to rival Mr Deng Xiaoping's. Mr Yu's life and achievements were serialised in popular magazines and periodicals; he appeared regularly on the television news; he was often seen being consulted by high-ranking government officials; and his calligraphy was plastered all over public buildings in his home village. There came a point however when Mr Yu apparently started to believe his own propaganda. ''He evidently thought he was invincible, that he could defy the Tianjin authorities and get away with it,'' said one observer in Beijing. But now last year's hero of economic reform is in a lot of trouble. And without Mr Yu at the helm, his village is rapidly going to seed. The factories are still open but no one seems interested in working. No one knows if Mr Yu will survive the scandal but even if he does, Daqiuzhuang will never be seen in the same light again. Many observers are already comparing the fate of Daqiuzhuang to the rise and fall of China's other model village, Dazhai, the ''wonder commune'' praised by Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. Dazhai achieved spectacular results in agricultural production, it was said, simply because of the peasants' political correctness. Millions of visitors flocked to the commune in Shanxi and its leader, Chen Yonggui, was made vice-premier. Mao instructed the whole country to ''learn from Dazhai'' but the village was proved to be a fraud in the late 70s, the commune was disbanded and Chen fell into disgrace.