November 12, 2005


In China, Crossing the Line Into Activism: Seizure of Farmland Turns Peasant Woman Into Protest Leader (Edward Cody, November 12, 2005, Washington Post)

When Chen Weiying rode up on the back of a sputtering motorbike that chaotic morning, what she saw changed her life.

Dozens of women were crying and shouting as uniformed policemen carried them away, Chen recalled, and three elderly farmers lay in the fields to block a squad of front-end loaders and dump trucks poised to attack the fertile earth. Chen decided on the spot -- without planning, she said, and without thinking it through -- that she could not stand on the fringes.

"Go ahead!" she shouted to her sister-in-law, Li A-Fang, who was driving the motorbike. "Go ahead! Get in there!" And so they did, Chen said, bursting through a line of uniformed policemen trying to keep people off the rich farmland that had been seized for the construction of a warehouse zone, despite a three-day-old protest by the peasants who had worked the land for years.

With that shout, Chen also crossed another line. A traditional southern Chinese farm wife on a lush island in the Zhu River near Guangzhou, she began her transformation into a scrappy, sometimes violent opponent of local government and Communist Party authorities bent on developing Sanshan into an industrial zone.

Desperate Search for Justice: One Man vs. China (JIM YARDLEY, 11/12/05, NY Times)

At his most desperate, when he had no more borrowed money for his son's legal defense, Xie Yujun went to a hospital. He knew of China's black market in body parts. He wanted to sell his eyes. He was refused.

Mr. Xie, 60, is no stranger to desperate acts, if by necessity. His son was charged with a savage knife attack here in rural Anhui Province that left a mother and daughter badly wounded. The police suspected the son because of a property dispute between the families. But Mr. Xie believed the case was deeply flawed: the victims never identified the attacker. The only evidence was a questionable shoeprint. Police misconduct was blatant.

Mr. Xie's problem was convincing a court. His son's lawyers had no chance to question witnesses or, initially, to examine evidence. At one point, Mr. Xie himself sneaked into a prison to interview a witness. Even a tantalizing appeals court victory proved hollow. The son was tried again and sentenced to life in prison.

"There must be one person in the Communist Party who is honest and who believes in justice," Mr. Xie said. "If I can't even find one, then the party is not going to last long."

China's authoritarian government once relied on ideology and brute force to bind and regulate society. Now, it is asking citizens like Mr. Xie to have faith in the country's legal system to resolve disputes and mete out justice.

But Mr. Xie's plaintive cry poses a fundamental question about China's promise of rule of law: Is it possible for a criminal defendant to get a fair trial?

For most of the 56-year history of the People's Republic of China, the answer, by any standard, has been no. But in 1996, facing international and domestic pressure, China introduced reforms that expanded a criminal defendant's right to counsel and sought to create a more impartial judiciary.

Yet today the inadequacy of those reforms, and the reluctance of the ruling Communist Party to make meaningful change, is abundantly evident.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 12, 2005 9:24 AM

Here, farmland is being turned into subdivisions and golf courses. The only difference is that the poor peasants in China don't own the land they farm, so they can't make a bundle by selling out.

It's more like 18th century Britain, and the switch from local subsistence agriculture to wool production for export that disposessed the English peasantry of its livelihood and stocked England's cities with cheap labor in time for the Industrial Revolution. Soon these peasants will be turning out cheap steel to flood the world's markets.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 12, 2005 12:04 PM


Posted by: oj at November 12, 2005 12:17 PM

It is true that America and Britain suffered tremendous upheavals, but their great traditions of English common law were strong enough to endure and give as much liberty and justice as it is possible for imperfect men and women to give.

In China, under the Qin dynasty more than two millenia ago, everyone was subject to draconian law. There were laws, but there was no liberty and there was no justice.

The story goes that one military officer and his soldiers had fallen hopelessly behind schedule in fulfilling their mission. He knew there would be no mercy for him under Qin law. His only fate would be death. So he raised the standard of rebellion, lighting a fire that would spread and in the end burn down the imperial house of the Qin.

In China today, just as under the Qin, there too are laws, but there too is no liberty and there too is no justice. The destiny of Britain and America will not be China's.

Posted by: X at November 12, 2005 5:16 PM

An ordinary woman, Rosa Parks, who was pushed one too many times, shamed us into reforming the shameful Jim Crow laws only a few short decades ago. Perhaps it will be left to another ordinary woman, this time in China, to shame the government into agrarian reforms?

Posted by: erp at November 13, 2005 7:14 AM

erp, unfortunately, an autocratic Chinese Communist government can't be shamed into doing anything. Why? Because you can't shame dictators who have no shame.

In America, a Rosa Parks can become a national heroine who serves her nation by appealing to its conscience. In China, a Rosa Parks will simply be branded "an enemy of the people" and become just another prisoner of conscience.

Posted by: X at November 13, 2005 3:27 PM