With blood on their hands, the peasants panicked. To be sure, the good folk of Willow Gully had been provoked. Their friend and fellow farmer Wei Wendong lay unconscious, beaten by a band of roughnecks in the pay of local officials. They came wielding electric batons to extort overdue taxes and illegal fees. And when the impoverished villagers saw Mr Wei go down, some 150 of them fought back with hoes and sticks.
But in so doing, they had stood up to the authorities, and wounded several of their hired thugs. The mêlée only ended when the government scrambled reinforcements. Now, the villagers worried, would they be punished for their dissent?
Last July, ringleaders of the resistance rushed to Mulberry Garden village in neighbouring Mengyi county, in eastern China's Shandong province. An iron letterbox by the mud track – the only letterbox in the village – was their signpost to the simple home of Wang Xuefu, a 53-year-old ex-soldier and farmer turned free legal adviser.
"Don't worry," Mr Wang assured his scared visitors. "They are in the wrong. The central government has repeatedly urged against using violence to collect tax. You must get forensic evidence, keep the bloodstained clothes and get a medical expert's evaluation. If you want to take the officials to court, I'll represent you."
This month, a local court finally convenes an initial hearing of Willow Gully's civil lawsuit for compensation for injuries inflicted by the state. And if Mr Wang's impressive past record offers any guide, the chance of success is reasonable, despite the predisposition of Chinese judges towards the Communist Party that appoints them. Mr Wang's letterbox has become a landmark for streams of peasants whose cause he has adopted.
"Money is important but it isn't the only thing," said Li Zhizeng, a villager assisting Mr Wang. "We want the authorities to know we're not just country bumpkins who know nothing."
As China struggles to replace its traditional rule of man with the impartial rule of law, Mr Wang and Mr Li are fighting the frontline battle against the endemic corruption rotting this nation from the highest halls of power down to the countryside, where more than 60 per cent of Chinese live.
Across China, the number of lawsuits filed by citizens against government officials is rising sharply, with a 40 per cent success rate, according to some estimates. While courts rarely accept large-scale litigation or challenges to government policy, smaller grievances are being addressed.
In Shandong, Mr Wang is just one member of an informal network of amateur, self-taught legal advisers spread across the coastal province, a place rich in the contradictions and inequalities of modern China. Mr Wang spent the 1990s buying and studying heavy tomes such as The Comprehensive Laws of the PRC and newspapers including Legal Daily and Agricultural Masses.
Like the little-trained but enthusiastic "barefoot doctors" Chairman Mao once sent out to bring health care to the masses, Mr Wang and his ilk are offering rudimentary help to China's most needy citizens. And their ability to find peaceful resolutions to explosive situations comes at a critical time.
Earlier this month, more than 30,000 angry, laid-off workers in two north-east Chinese cities took to the streets with red banners, Mao portraits and curses for their corrupt bosses. Economic reforms, hastened by entry into the World Trade Organisation, are proving intolerable for many farmers. Premier Zhu Rongji has promised a standard, flat tax to replace the many illicit fees currently imposed but local administrations are squeezing their constituents to meet Beijing's development goals despite shrinking budgets.
In Mulberry Garden, largely because of Wang Xuefu's success, government officials are learning to behave. Mr Wang is a gentle-mannered man who admits: "I was forced to become a rebel." He was a loyal Communist until beaten to the point of death in June 1989, and stripped of party membership.
He was not in Tiananmen Square but in his village, opposing an unfair grain tax. Like the beaten farmer Wei Wendong, he recovered and his life was changed forever. "It was then I realised we'd have to turn to the law as our weapon," he said.
In the case of Willow Gully, Mr Wang prefers to address the injuries suffered, not taxation policy. The ruling Communist Party remains largely above Chinese courts, despite efforts to strengthen the rule of law. There is genuine support for reform at the higher levels, provided one-party rule is not imperilled, yet implementing change in China is slow.
On the front line, the party still invariably wins. But in the courtroom, thanks to the barefoot lawyers, the odds are becoming more even.Reuse content