The desperate search for justice by Chinese peasants is Peking's worst nightmare

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The Independent Online

With public boasts and very private trials, the Chinese government has this week been tackling corruption. After the execution of a top legislator on Thursday, for accepting bribes worth £3.3m, the state-run People's Daily trumpeted: "The Communist Party of China is completely capable of eliminating cancers invading the body of the Party, by its own powers, to maintain its progressive nature and purity."

With public boasts and very private trials, the Chinese government has this week been tackling corruption. After the execution of a top legislator on Thursday, for accepting bribes worth £3.3m, the state-run People's Daily trumpeted: "The Communist Party of China is completely capable of eliminating cancers invading the body of the Party, by its own powers, to maintain its progressive nature and purity."

Behind closed doors, courts began trying more than 200 "impure" officials accused in a £6bn smuggling case in Fujian province. While some of those implicated reside in Peking's courtyards of power, few expect any big names to fall. And in China's villages, as evidence mounts of growing rural tensions, this week's "victory of justice and rule of law" offers little real hope of curbing endemic corruption at rice-roots level.

China's leaders do not have far to travel should they deign to hear the people's grievances. All the misery and brutality of modern China is lined up along a small street in southern Peking. At its northern end lies an obscure government office. There is no sign from the main road, and the phone number is not listed, but word of mouth works well enough among the dispossessed. In makeshift camps, at least 200 Chinese stake their daily claims and hold out for the duration.

It could be a long wait. They have come from every corner of this vast land to "shangfang", two Chinese characters that conceal a multitude of sins. "To complain to the higher authorities about an injustice and request fair settlement" is the dictionary translation. It sounds so straightforward, but a few conversations soon disabuse one of any impression that the system actually works.

An old peasant from Inner Mongolia says he has been coming here for 20 years, fighting in vain for compensation for a vicious beating by the head of his People's Commune, way back in the Cultural Revolution. Veteran Shu Shandong lost his leg in China's 1979 border war with Vietnam, and his job three years ago. He begged his way to Peking but has obtained no government support. "I fought for this country, I bled for this country," Shu complains. "How can they treat me like this?" A more pressing concern for Peking is how to control the officials provoking unrest in the countryside, where some 900 million people still live.

"Every day the central government says 'we will resolve the farmers' burden'," cries Zhao Sunan from Sichuan province. "But the local officials are acting worse than the Nationalists' 'white terror' in the 1930s. City people cannot imagine how corrupt they are!"

And how effective they are at protecting each other. Zhao cannot return to her home village after she frightened local authorities by pursuing the largest civil action ever attempted against government officials in China. In June 1997, together with almost 2,200 families from Sichuan, Zhao sued the government for imposing excessive poll tax of almost half the villagers' £80 annual income. If villagers failed to pay, they were detained illegally in government offices, and beaten until relatives borrowed enough to buy their freedom.

But since then, Hebian officials have successfully pressured the families to withdraw the suit and forced "ringleaders" such as Zhao on the run. While Zhao's two children are cared for by their grandparents in the village, the former teacher and her husband find piecemeal work in the provincial capital Chengdu to fund her struggle for justice.

The cabinet office at the end of the street, the State Council Letters and Visits Bureau, is the place of last resort for thousands like Zhao whose efforts to seek redress have failed at local level. China's citizens hold little faith in its courts of law, where the judiciary is appointed and dominated by the Communist Party. But they maintain a naive hope, nurtured by literary tradition, that if only a righteous, high-ranking official could read their heart-rending petition, he would have the power to set things right.

Even that hope is becoming remote. Zhao is on her fourth trip to Peking to protest over the villagers' plight. She is accompanied by two equally unlikely fugitives: fellow villager Liu Decai, a poor and illiterate farmer, and 67-year-old Wu Tianxiang, a former model worker in a nearby city.

Wu was a local legislator before his outrage at the treatment of Hebian's peasants turned corrupt officials against this lifelong party member. In August, Wu heard a local propaganda broadcast calling for his arrest and fled for his life.

The three are taking great risks just coming to Peking. Their age and rustic dress mark them as targets for police cracking down on Falun Gong believers. Near the Letters and Visits Bureau, plainclothes police try to halt exchanges with any "suspicious" characters such as journalists. But Zhao is undaunted. "I am fighting for the right to eat, and I will keep on fighting," she vows. "We've done nothing wrong. The truth is on our side."

That kind of conviction represents Peking's worst nightmare. The Communist revolution 50 years ago was supposed to end the oppression of the peasantry. But as farming incomes stall, the environment deteriorates, and more people leave the land for the cities, local officials are responding with the oldest squeeze in the book: increased taxes. And the peasants are not going to take it any more.

Last month saw the most dramatic example yet, when up to 20,000 farmers in Jiangxi province protested violently against excessive taxes. Peasant rebellions have ended many a Chinese dynasty; as the crisis grows, Peking had better start listening to the likes of Zhao Sunan. But for now, it still prefers to lock them up.

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