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Defending Rights in Baihutou Village

January 26, 2011

The story of the struggle between residents of a seaside village and the local government determined to seize the land.

The version of the Beihai map to be published next year will quite possibly no longer show the village of Baihutou. In fact, the land of Baihutou Village was expropriated four years ago, and fishing families who had lived there for generations have become troublemakers in the eyes of the government.

Over the past three years, the villagers have had to retreat in defeat again and again in the game of chess they have been playing with the government. Today, the village of Baihutou is scarred and battered. About twenty small buildings dot the area, amid weeds and rubble. Everything seems desolate and lonely. A wall recently built by the government has tightly sealed the village’s defeat.

Who would have thought that this was once a flourishing seaside village with nearly 1,000 houses, a village bustling with car traffic, and tourists who never tired of coming? All this has disappeared like fleeting clouds. The once-prosperous villagers of Baihutou are now reduced to poverty.

These residents have paid a high price for trying to defend their right to a basic livelihood: eight of them have been arrested or sentenced to prison terms, and many more have been forced to flee the village. But the people of Baihutou are continuing their struggle with unflinching determination. What happened in Baihutou Village? What role did the government play in the events? Where will the people of Baihutou go from here?

Yintan as It Used to Be

Baihutou is a beautiful seaside village. It is under the jurisdiction of Yintan Township, Yinhai District, in Beihai, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In Chinese, “Baihutou” means “white tiger head,” and the village is so named because its beach is shaped like a tiger’s head. The village’s beach is famous for being a “long white sand beach with calm, warm waters, gentle waves, and no sharks.”

In 1991, Baihutou built its first park and attracted crowds of tourists. The following year, the village changed its name to Beihai Yintan (“Beihai Silver Beach”) and was listed as a national tourist resort. Over the course of the following decade, a record number of visitors flocked to the Beihai Yintan scenic area, and as a consequence, tourism became a pillar of the Beihai economy. In Guangxi, Beihai quickly became second only to Guilin as a famous tourist city.

The growth of the tourism industry brought development opportunities to Baihutou Village and its approximately 2,600 inhabitants. The villagers began to open family hotels, operate beach showers, rent parasols, sell food, and offer other tourist services. Most of the fishermen gave up their trade to go into tourism, and gradually became more prosperous. On the main road by the beach, the villagers built row upon row of small Western-style buildings and lived and worked there in peace and contentment.

The Nightmare Begins

Almost ten years after Baihutou became a tourist resort, its silver white sand began to turn gray and be­came depleted and the seawater became polluted. The extent of the pollution was severe. Therefore, a major project was conceived to renovate Yintan and protect its environmental integrity.

In August 2000 the Beihai authorities decided to re­store Yintan and protect its environmental integrity according to international standards; the development of a 24-kilometer-long coastal tourism belt was planned.

The first phase of the Yintan Renovation Project was basically completed in 2003, with the demolition of the more than 100 buildings that had been built in the tidal zone and that affected the beach’s natural environment.

In 2006 the second phase (Phase II) of the Yintan Renovation Project was launched. The Beihai municipal government divided the 179.4152 hectares (ha) of land involved in Phase II—which included all of the collective land of Baihutou Village—into five plots and submitted a land use application to the Guangxi government. The application was approved.

China’s Land Management Law clearly stipulates that the requisition of land exceeding 70 ha must be reported to the State Council for approval. But the total land area to be developed in Phase II far exceeded the limit permitted for local government approval in Guangxi. In a April 8, 2010, China National Radio reporter, Chen Jieren, a researcher at the China University of Political Science and Law, said that Phase II of the project was a case of illegally “splitting the whole into pieces” in order to fall within the approval limit.

Aside from this, in accordance with the stipulation of relevant Chinese laws, before issuing a land use permit, a planning bureau must require the government agency requisitioning the land to submit relevant documents showing the project’s registration with and authorization by the State Council.

Mr. Chen, the deputy director of the Beihai Municipal Land Reserve Center—the requisitioning government unit—acknowledged in the same China National Radio report that the planning of Phase II had not been completed. From this, one can see that laws and regulations were violated during the overall approval process of Phase II.1

“Phase II was not officially registered and authorized, had no proper planning, and had obtained approval by ‘splitting the whole into pieces’ in violation of regulations,” said Gao Jianbo, who has served as village representative for almost a decade. “We learned all this after we had made several attempts to petition the higher authorities. Before this, we had never staged any public demonstrations.”

An Agreement Signed Privately and Surreptitiously

It is not clear when Phase II of the project was named the “Yintan Renovation and New Socialist Country­side Infrastructure Project.” According to the authorities’ plan, all of the land in Baihutou Village was to be requisitioned and the villagers were to be relocated to a site two kilometers from the beach named Beibeiling Cun (“North Back Ridge Village”).

In April of 2006 the former Baihutou Village committee head Feng Kun, unbeknownst to the villagers and without calling a meeting of the village representative assembly, signed a document without authorization selling off the village land. In so doing, he handed over all the land that was left over from previous requisitions—more than 400 mu—to the Beihai Municipal Land Reserve Center, for a compensation of just over 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) per mu.

It was not until May 2007, when the government’s land requisition notice was posted, that the people of Baihutou realized that the land they stood on and where they had lived for generations no longer belonged to them.

The villagers of Baihutou opposed the demolition and relocation. They were deeply disaffected, not only by the former village committee head signing away their land without authorization, but even more so by the inadequacy of the monetary compensation for the requisition.

According to a local real estate source, beachfront land on Yintan commands the highest land prices in

Beihai; the current land value is at least 7–8 million yuan (about $1.05–$1.2 million) per mu. Of two plots of land sold in Yintan in 2008, the selling price of one hotel site measuring just over 20 mu was 15 million yuan (about $2.25 million) per mu.

In Baihutou Village, the compensation for housing requisitioned for redevelopment was generally 800–900 yuan (about $120–$135) per square meter; some one-story houses received as little as 400 yuan (about $60) per square meter.

The compensation the Baihutou villagers received was much too little for them to be able to buy land and build new homes where they were relocated. For example, in December 2007, Ms. Lin signed a demolition-and-relocation agreement that gave her 230,000 yuan (about $34,500) for a 100-plus-square-meter one-story house (land and building). She then spent almost 190,000 yuan (about $28,500) on a plot of land in the relocation area. She wanted to build a house, but that would have cost her an additional 400,000-plus yuan (about $60,000). Because she did not have the money, construction was stopped when the house was only half built.

Demolition Craze

Because of the series of illegal actions on the part of the government during the land requisition process, the villagers of Baihutou continued to resist the demolition and relocation. In 2009, the Beihai municipal government began to advance with force. In one document from the Yinhai District government, the “Yinhai District People’s Court” was listed as the government agency responsible for demolition and relocation, and Chief Judge Zhang Yongming listed as the person in charge. His job was to issue rulings by a fixed deadline in more than 60 administrative lawsuits brought by Baihutou households slated for eviction and relocation.

Another document, entitled “Notice Regarding the Work of Rendering Assistance for the Prompt Signing of Demolition-and-Relocation Agreements in the Yintan Renovation Project,” referred to five “extraordinaries”: “The principal municipal [Party] committee and municipal government leaders demand that extraordinary methods, extraordinary measures, extraordinary strength, extraordinary policies, and extraordinary speed be employed to complete within a fixed deadline the work of signing demolition-and-relocation agreements in the Yintan Renovation Project.”

A broad swath of public opinion in Beihai came to question the demolition-and-relocation plans. Even households with family members serving as government officials could not avoid the misfortune. Work units notified their employees that if their family members refused to sign, they would be put on leave to “work on their thinking,” and could return to work only after their families were willing to sign. Many households caved in to the pressure and signed the demolition-and-relocation agreements.

Once the Beihai municipal government had laid the groundwork for the evictions and demolitions, the nightmare of Baihutou Village began to unfold.

On October 30, 2009, the Beihai municipal government dispatched more than 100 armed police to enforce the demolition of the Baihutou Village committee building. Several hundred villagers resisted, the two sides clashed, and a dozen or so villagers suffered injuries. Three villagers—Gao Zhenzhang (age 70), his son Gao Shihui, and Cai Jianyue—were detained under criminal charges, and three villagers were put under administrative detention. Wu Chunman, an 85-year-old villager, was seriously injured by members of the wrecking crew, was taken to a hospital, and died shortly thereafter.

In June 2010, Gao Zhenzhang, Gao Shihui, and Cai Jianyue were sentenced to prison terms of one to two and a half years for “obstructing official business.” In September, the court of second instance upheld the conviction.

On October 7 and 8, 2010, the Beihai municipal government staged another offensive. An eviction and demolition army consisting of more than 1,000 armed police and government officials from various departments stormed into Baihutou Village and tore down five residential buildings. Several villagers were abducted by demolition-and-relocation personnel and not sent back until the houses had been completely torn down. Before Gao Jianbo’s house was forcibly demolished, he was detained for 15 days by the Yinhai District People’s Court.

Thanks to the efforts of numerous rights defenders, dozens of journalists from inside China rushed to Baihutou. Within a short period of time, nearly 100 Chinese media outlets had published reports on the demolition of Baihutou and the forced relocation of its residents. Under mounting pressure from the public, the Beihai authorities temporarily suspended the forcible demolition operation.

It is worth mentioning that as the villagers were being evicted so that their homes could be demolished, a Beihai government official warned them, “If there is a loss of life, there will be an uproar on the Internet for a dozen days or so. That’s nothing to us. But how will it affect you?”2 This is an example of the bullying behavior of the Beihai authorities.

When he was asked about the Baihutou demolition-and-relocation incident during a media interview, Professor Zhang Ming of Renmin University of China said that during projects of this sort, the government, judicial, and procuratorial authorities act as one. In fact, the judiciary is not able to act independently because it is under administrative control.

Legal Channels

The villagers have not given up their efforts to resolve the dispute through legal channels. From 2007 to 2009, they sued the Beihai Municipal Planning Bureau and the Municipal Land Bureau. Because of interference from the government, the local lawyer they hired was forced to withdraw from the case.

The villagers had no alternative but to turn to local rights defenders. Despite the obvious fact that the government had broken the law, the court bowed to government pressure and issued decisions that disappointed the villagers again and again.

In March of this year, the villagers hired a rights defense lawyer from Beijing, who initiated a lawsuit against Yintan Township government officials and the former village committee director. But the Yinhai District People’s Court refused to hear the case and failed to issue a written ruling, as required by law. According to Baihutou villager Xu Meng, the complaint filed by the villagers was stealthily returned under cover of night by someone sent by the court.

“When the court at which cases were filed refused to accept those cases, it said, ‘the government prevents and controls, and the court assists,’” recalled Liu Wei, a rights defense lawyer from Beijing who is representing the villagers. She said that the chief judge of the court where cases were filed had told her that the court was required to consult the Beihai municipal government on any case involving land in Baihutou.

The Beihai authorities spread their tentacles everywhere. In April 2010, two lawyers hired by the villagers were followed and were surreptitiously photographed while reading files in the Yinhai District People’s Procuratorate. When the lawyers spotted and challenged the man following them, he admitted that he was a police officer from the Tieshangang District Public Security Bureau in Beihai.

Nevertheless, not all the suits were ignored by the courts. In December 2009, the Beihai Municipal Construction Committee issued an administrative decision for the demolition of houses and the relocation of their residents. Ten villagers refused to be evicted and filed a suit at the Yinhai District People’s Court. “The outcome was a foregone conclusion. The government was just going through the legal motions, to cloak the forcible demolition in lawfulness,” said villager Xu Meng.

On July 2, 2010, the Yinhai District People’s Court issued an administrative order upholding the Beihai Municipal Construction Committee’s administrative decision to demolish the houses and relocate the residents. The villagers appealed the first-instance verdict and took their case to the Beihai Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. More than a month later, the Intermediate Court of second instance dismissed the appeal and upheld the original verdict.

One man in particular has played a pivotal role throughout the struggle to defend the land rights of the villagers of Baihutou that netizens have dubbed him “China’s No. 1 village official who ‘posts the most’ [on the Internet].” His name is Xu Kun, and he is the current village chief of Baihutou. He now finds himself behind bars.

A Village Official Practices Democracy

Thirty-six-year-old Xu Kun is not a man of many words, but he is honest and fair, and gets on very well with people. Whenever Xu’s name is mentioned, the people of Baihutou are full of praise for him. During the year and nine months between assuming the position of village chief and his arrest, Xu steadfastly led the villagers’ efforts to resist the forced demolitions and relocations. Striving to obtain more compensation for his fellow villagers, he contended with various government departments.

How did a village official so beloved and respected by the villagers end up behind bars? In the opinion of his family members, Xu’s fate was sealed the moment he decided to run for village chief in 2008.

“At the time, a government official said that even if Xu were elected, in less than three months he would realize what he was up against and quit,” according to Ms. Feng, Xu’s wife. “But if he failed to accept where things stood, he would end up in a world of trouble.” Feng also said that Xu’s attitude at the time was that even if he were village chief for only one day, he would fight for the villagers’ legitimate rights.

Xu Kun was elected village chief in August 2008, after three fiercely contested ballots. But during the subsequent elections for deputy chief and village committee members, the former village leaders got themselves elected by illicit means.

Thus, a very strange executive team was formed: Xu Kun found that all of the people working by his side were opposed to him. He was not even allowed to work in the village chief’s office in the village commit­tee building, but was forced to use a storage room as his office.

The first thing Xu tried to do upon taking office was to review his predecessor’s accounts. The other village committee members opposed this. The two sides were at loggerheads, and the township government ended up sealing the books for examination at some future date. When the day came to examine the sealed books, it was found that they had been destroyed.

Because Xu Kun could not get the support of the township government, the village Party branch, or the village [Party] committee, he began convening meetings of the village representative assembly to put matters big and small to a democratic vote. “All thirty-nine village representatives were democratically elected. What’s more, according to relevant Chinese laws, the village representative assembly has more authority than the village [Party] committee,” said Gao Jianbo.

But in today’s China, the government never takes the law seriously, and Beihai is no exception. The decisions taken by the Baihutou Village representative assembly were never recognized by the township government. The representative assembly was not even able to meet in the village committee conference room, often holding its meetings at the homes of villagers. After he took office, despite the pressure he was under, Xu spared no effort to implement village-level democracy and convened eight meetings of the village representative assembly.

In April 2009, the Yintan Township government lured Xu to a conference room and, in the presence of Li Dequan, the secretary of the Yinhai District Party Committee, forcibly took from him his official seal as head of the village committee. As soon as the seal was snatched away, it was used to sign a compensation agreement for the eviction and relocation of the villagers and the demolition of the village’s collective property. Until then, Xu had steadfastly refused to sign the agreement, in accordance with the decisions of the village representative assembly.

That month, a decision by the Yinhai Township Party Committee stripped Xu of his Party membership for having failed to obey his superiors. More than once, he sought an explanation from the township Party committee and demanded that his Party membership be restored, although he was already deeply disheartened by what had happened. Before his arrest, he told his friends on more than one occasion, “If my Party membership is restored, the first thing I will do is to publicly declare that I am quitting the Communist Party of China.”

In fact, for quite some time, Xu and the Baihutou Village assembly representatives had been boycotting the Party they had previously revered. In June 2009 the Baihutou Party branch required Xu to pay 80,000 yuan (about $12,000) for Party members to take a trip to mark the founding of the Communist Party on July 1. Xu immediately convened a meeting of the village representative assembly, which unanimously voted not to pay for the Party trip. This was extremely shocking and embarrassing to the Beihai municipal Party committees at all levels.

After this, Xu was often tailed by men sent by the government, and his phone was tapped.

On October 30, 2009, several villagers who tried to resist the government’s forced demolition of the village committee building were arrested. The government let it be known that Xu was going to be arrested. He was therefore forced to flee to Beijing.

During the period from when he took office as village chief to when he was forced into exile, Xu led the villagers in bringing many lawsuits, but all of them ended in failure. Thus, although he had only a junior high school education, Xu began to learn how to use the Internet. By posting the latest news about their efforts to defend their rights in several major Internet forums, Xu Kun and his village of Baihutou soon became a topic of public debate. Xu’s appeal for help while he was in Beijing bore fruit. Many rights defense lawyers began to pay attention to the Baihutou land case.

Relentless Arrests

In March 2010, five months after he was forced to flee, and after a big team of rights defense lawyers had gotten involved in the case, Xu Kun gradually began to appear in public in Baihutou Village.

But the favorable conditions did not last. On May 15, the Beihai Municipal Public Security Bureau arrested Xu on “suspicion of illegally operating a business” and refused his request to see a lawyer on the grounds that the case “involved state secrets” and that there had been “interference from overseas hostile forces.” Gao Shifu and Zhang Chunqiong were also arrested on suspicion of illegally operating a business. In addition, at least four people were forced to flee the village to avoid arrest.

The police issued a bulletin claiming that the suspect Xu Kun had organized and plotted with dozens of Baihutou villagers to forcibly occupy the parking lot at the eastern entrance of the Yintan Beach scenic area to illegally collect visitors’ parking fees.

In fact, in 1994, the Beihai municipal government had zoned 76.93 mu of land, to be used collectively to provide employment opportunities for the villagers of Baihutou. But for several years, the plot of land was used by the Yintan Scenic Area Company (“Silver Beach Scenic Area Company”), which was owned by Beihai municipal government. The parking lot referred to in the police bulletin was located on the land that had been zoned to be used collectively to provide employment to the villagers, but the villagers had never recognized the validity of the zoning.

Xu Kun and the members of the Baihutou Village Committee were not personally involved in the operation and management of the parking lot, nor did they derive any profits from it. Gao Jianbo said, “The facts are quite clear: Xu Kun was framed because of his long-standing defense of the rights of the villagers.”

Xu’s lawyer, the Chongqing rights defense lawyer Zheng Jianwei, made several trips to Baihutou Village to investigate. He interviewed several village assembly representatives and villagers who had been involved in the operation of the parking lot, and he shot videos on site. The villagers all confirmed that Xu had not been involved in the management and operation of the parking lot and had not profited from it.

Lawyer Zheng believes that Xu’s actions do not constitute illegal operation of a business, and do not meet the lawful definition of illegal operation of a business.3 And Zhang Ming, former chairman of the Department of Politics at the Renmin University of China, said in an interview that Xu’s arrest had laid bare the bankruptcy of China’s village autonomy.4

The Struggle Continues

On November 17, 2010, He Xianfu and his daughter-in-law, whose home had just been demolished, were arrested by the Beihai Municipal Public Security Bureau on charges of “obstructing official duties.” The reason was that finding himself homeless, He Xianfu had built a wooden shack on the rubble of his demolished home.

To date, eight Baihutou villagers have been arrested or given jail sentences. It is expected that as the Beihai authorities proceed with their forced evictions and demolitions, many more people will be arrested. Perhaps a greater tragedy will befall Baihutou.

At this point, there are still more than 40 families in Baihutou who have not signed a demolition-and-relocation agreement. Their demands are by no means excessive. They just want to be resettled on the land where their homes were originally located, according to the principle of “demolish and replace,” and to be able to continue to manage the plot of land that was used to provide employment opportunity for them.

The villagers of Baihutou have made their living from the sea for generations. They are fisherfolk to the core. They do not know how to farm, and they have no farmland. If they are forced to leave the sea, they will be unable to sustain a livelihood. But the government insists on forcing them to move to a location two kilometers from the sea.

In November, the villagers invited the Beijing rights defense lawyer Li Baiguang to their village, and more than 50 families signed a retainer agreement with him. That same month, Chen Jifu, and some 120 fellow villagers in Baihutou, submitted an application to the Beihai authorities to hold a month-long demonstration, to call on the authorities to launch an investigation into the abuse of public power in the course of land requisition, and to hold those involved in the violation legally responsible.

The people of Baihutou are keeping up their resistance. Although demolitions carried out a month ago are still painful to the villagers, and although fewer than 100 people are still trying to hold on to their homes, the people of Baihutou are staunchly defending their dignity.

“There is no going back for us. Continuing our struggle is the only option, even if we have to pay the ultimate price,” said Gao Jianbo with a determined but dazed expression in his eyes.

In recent years, many tragedies in China have resulted from the government’s unlawful acts of demolition and relocation, such as the cases of self-immolation in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, and in Yihuang County, Jiangxi Province. Contempt for the law is one of the reasons why government authorities dare to act with such utter lack of constraint.

Would such tragedies occur so frequently if the government respected the rights and interests of citizens and governed in accordance with the law? The situation in Baihutou is most worrisome. One can only hope that this tragedy will not be repeated.

Editor’s Notes

1. Bai Yu and Feng Huiling [白宇及冯会玲], “Guangxi Beihai bei zhi weigui zhengdi, guihua juchang qiang jizhe caifangji” [广西北海被指违规征地,规划局长抢记者采访机], China National Radio [中国广播网], April 8, 2010, http://china.huanqiu.com/roll/2010-04/770855.html. ^

2. Wang Nanjie and Lei Peiwen [王楠杰及雷佩雯], “Guangxi Beihai qiangchai cheng chu le renming zuoduo wangshang renao jitian” [广西北海强拆称出了人命最多网上热闹几天] , Southern Daily [南方日报], October 14, 2010, http://www.china.nfdaily.cn/con­tent/2010-10/14/content_16675217.htm. ^

3. Xie Yang [谢洋], “Beihai yintan: tudi chaiqian zhong de minyi boyi” [北海银滩:土地拆迁中的民意博弈], China Youth Daily [中国青年报], October 18, 2010, http://www.zqb.cyol.com/con­tent/2010-10/18/content_3427436.htm. ^

4. Wang Nanjie and Lei Peiwen [王楠杰及雷佩雯], “Beihai qiangchai: yi zuo cunzhuang shi ruhe shaoshi de” [北海强拆:一座村庄是如何消失的], TIME WEEKLY [时代周报], October, 14, 2010, http://www.news.qq.com/a/20101014/001275_1.htm. ^

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