MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now on to part three of our series A Nation of Individuals. We're taking a look at the growth of individualism in China and the limits to it. Today we're going to look at China's experiments with political reform. NPR's Rob Gifford has a profile of a 60-year-old peasant in central China who stood and won in a village election.
ROB GIFFORD reporting:
Wan Shuguang should be a poster boy for political reform in China. In 2002, with rural unrest spreading at an alarming rate, the central government stepped up its policy of allowing some villages to elect their village head. They figured this very limited political reform would draw the sting of the protests and help maintain stability in the countryside. Wan stood as an independent candidate in his village near the town of Chien Jang(ph) in the central province of Hubei. And to his amazement, he won.
He set about trying to make government more transparent, especially in its finances. Nearly three years later, though, much of that optimism has dissipated, and Wan Shuguang is getting into a taxi after a week in the hospital.
Unidentified Man #1: (Chinese spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: The previous week Wan says was badly beaten by the Communist Party's secretary of his village, the latest and certainly the worst in a long string of disputes that have dogged Wan since the day he was elected.
Unidentified Man #3: (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: As China's economy and society are transformed by reform, the story of how Wan Shuguang went from confident, democratically elected village leader to cowed victim of local Communist Party brutality is a sign of just how far China has to go politically.
The taxi drives five miles from the hospital to the house of a friend at a village near to Wan's own. He wants to avoid any further confrontation with his rival. Wan gets out of the car and sits gingerly on a bench just inside the rustic farmhouse to tell his story.
Mr. WAN SHUGUANG: (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: He says the immediate cause of the beating was a letter he wrote to the Communist Party secretary, in which the secretary said he was not respectful enough. At every level of Chinese government, from provinces down to cities down to the smallest village, there are two parallel structures of government: One is the government itself; the other is the Communist Party. At the village level, there is a Communist Party secretary and, also, a government village chief. It's the village chief job that Wan Shuguang stood for and won. There are no elections for Communist Party secretary because while the village chief job does have some power, most final power resides in the party apparatus. Every time Wan tried to do something on behalf of the people, his way was blocked.
Mr. WAN: (Through Translator) The Communist Party officials are not allowed to randomly impose taxes on the peasants, but the higher officials continued to impose them. So I organized six households to sue the higher level of government, but the courts wouldn't accept the case.
GIFFORD: That was just one of many cases. And when they weren't blocking legal action, the other officials were using local thugs to scare people from supporting Wan. Wan Shuguang's friend, Jung Xiao Jun(ph), gets up from the conversation to feed the pigs, who live in a pen just outside the back door.
(Soundbite of pigs)
GIFFORD: Jung and his neighbors rely on the pigs to make a living. His situation is very similar to Wan's. Of the 33 villages in their county, there are only two elected village chiefs, and both have had the same problems. Jung is tall and thin. He wears no shirt and has a voice that could strip paint.
Mr. JUNG XIAO JUN (Wan's Friend): (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: Once he starts, it's almost impossible to stop him in his anger about how the ordinary people in rural China are being mistreated. For Americans, the three words that sum up so much of what the United States is about are the first three words of the Constitution: `We, the people.' `We, the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.' For all the complex and sometimes messy nature of democracy, the power is in the hands of the people.
China has its own equivalent of `We, the people,' and you hear it every day. (Chinese spoken) they say; `We, the ordinary people.' But (Chinese spoken) is never followed by grandiose statements of individual empowerment. (Chinese spoken) for Jung Xiao Jun, as for most individuals in rural China, is usually followed by a lament of helplessness.
Mr. JUNG: (Through Translator) We, the ordinary people, are weak. We have no power. Whether we want to accept it or not, we have to accept it. This is a one-party state. There is no way to oppose the Communist Party.
GIFFORD: China is being changed. There's no doubt about that. People are being empowered. People are becoming individuals. But it is so far mainly an urban phenomenon. Empowerment for the 800 million or so people who live in rural areas often boils down to the freedom to leave home, fleeing to the cities to find work and space to live. Wan Shuguang says both he and Jung Xiao Jun have been trying to spread the word about democracy to surrounding villages, but very soon his own three-year term of office is coming to an end.
Mr. WAN: (Through Translator) In this fake democracy, especially after being beaten, I'm asking myself if it's really worth it to stand again for office. Of course I would be re-elected if it was fair because the people would support me, but I'm so exhausted with all the confrontation, I think I probably won't stand.
GIFFORD: His friend, Jung Xiao Jun, has definitely decided he's not standing again.
Mr. JUNG: (Through Translator) They're just too corrupt. Party officials let their children become party officials, and they make lots of money and go abroad. If the Communist Party doesn't collapse first, then the people will rise up and kill it, and I, too, will go and kill it.
GIFFORD: If China is to rise to be a superpower, perhaps the increasingly angry peasantry will be its biggest challenge. Nearly 80 years ago in 1927, an unknown 35-year-old peasant called Mao Tse-tung visited the deep countryside just a few hundred miles south of here. The man who would later become Chairman Mao was trying to work out how the communist revolution could take off in China. He found his answer among the poor, angry, disenfranchised peasants of Hunan province. When he returned from his rural visit, he wrote these prophetic words: `Within a short time hundreds of millions of peasants will rise in central, South and North China with the fury of a hurricane. No force, no matter how strong, can restrain them,' he wrote. `They will break all the shackles that bind them and rush towards the road of liberation.'
Modern rural China has not yet reached hurricane force, but there is a storm brewing. And for all the very real, newfound wealth and individualism in the cities, it may in years or decades to come be the peasants who once again decide the future of China. Rob Gifford, NPR News.
NORRIS: You can hear the earlier pieces in this series at our Web site, npr.org.
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