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Running of the Bullies

Lack of supervision and support systems in rural China are a major reason why some village officials turn into local tyrants, experts say

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

By November 2020, 41,700 village officials had been fired over involvement in gang-related activity or bullying. Of these, 3,727 were punished or penalized, according to the WeChat account of the Central Politics and Law Commission (CPLC). 

Among the charges were monopolizing village resources, embezzling village lands for private use and engaging in criminal activity. Despite the grievances of villagers, many officials held their posts for years through intimidation, coercion and other nefarious means.  

Analysts attribute the phenomenon to China’s system of rural governance, which leaves much room for illegal behavior. An amendment to China’s Constitution in 1982 ensured “self-governance” at the village level, allowing for an elected village committee to manage local affairs. According to regulations, village self-governance includes four democratic pillars: elections, decision-making, management and supervision. Due to lack of support systems, the latter three are mostly ignored.  

“China’s open political environment in villages and vast gray zones for illegal economic activities provided fertile soil for village hoodlums,” Lu Dewen, a researcher at the Rural Governance Institute, Wuhan University, told NewsChina.  

Long Were Their Reigns
On November 28, 2020, a court in Zouping, Shandong Province heard the case of Zhang Shixue, former Party secretary and committee director of nearby Weiqiao Village. Charged with a laundry list of crimes including organizing gang activity, embezzling public resources, disturbing the peace, disrupting village production, loan fraud and illegal firearm possession, Zhang, 63, was sentenced to 19 years and eight months in prison.  

A son of the former village Party secretary, Zhang became a member of the village committee in 1997 despite only having a primary school education. From 2003 to 2017, Zhang served as village Party secretary, the highest local post. During that time, he also served as village committee director for seven years. Before every election, Zhang bribed voters with valuables such as mobile phones and threatened those who intended to vote otherwise. 

According to Liu Qingbin, a resident of Weiqiao Village, more than 500 villagers did not vote for Zhang in 2011. In retaliation, Zhang withheld their annual bonuses of foods and other items for Chinese New Year. “Zhang told them that he paid for the New Year goods distributed to villagers from his own pocket, but they were actually paid for by the village committee,” he told NewsChina.  

Another villager who refused to reveal his name told NewsChina that Zhang prevented those who did not vote for him from registering their children for residence permits.  

Zhang squeezed out his political rivals. “Zhang pushed me out because I often objected to his opinions,” Cheng Chuanbing, a former village committee director of Weiqiao Village, told NewsChina. In 2014, Zhang split the village committee into two groups. He and his followers used the new office building, while the rest met in an old, run-down house, Cheng claimed. For three years until Zhang finally lost reelection in 2017, the two groups worked separately, creating a major obstacle to village administration.  

In November 2020, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), China’s top disciplinary watchdog, posted on its website about the corruption case of Shi Fenggang, former Party secretary and committee director of Xinzhuang Village in Beijing’s Fengtai District, who was charged with forging documents and bribery to attain his post. Once elected, he filled all the major positions with close relatives or followers. He made decisions unilaterally, which eventually drove other officials to resign. 

To maintain his autocratic rule, Shi arranged for his son to take over his post and be elected as a delegate to Fengtai District People’s Congress. A former village official told NewsChina on condition of anonymity that Shi kept tabs on villagers using dozens of hidden voice recorders. 

“After the Organic Law of Villager Committees issued in 1998, many villages held open elections, but bribery, intimidation and lack of supervision were rampant,” Lu said.  

According to the CPLC report, the punished village officials were charged with meddling in 826 village elections to acquire their posts, with the longest tenure lasting 37 years. Among the officials, 762 had extended family clans supporting them.  

Villager Liu Qingbin points to a plot of land that former village head Zhang Shixue illegally repossessed by voiding the lease contract

Local Tyrants
According to Lu, profiting from public resources is a major reason why village toughs seek and hold official posts.  

“Reform and opening-up has transformed village economies, but due to poor supervision and lack of supportive laws and regulations, many areas are still beyond legal jurisdiction, such as the use and development of public lands,” Lu said. 

“That’s why village hoodlums are rare in western and moderately poor areas in China, but are rife in wealthier and more economically active areas, especially those with abundant natural resources such as minerals,” he added. 

Zhang Shixue illegally repossessed a plot of land whose lease had not expired. “The land contract was won in an open bid, but Zhang said it was null. He cut off electricity and water to the land,” Cheng said. During interviews, NewsChina learned that Zhang’s family and clan had started numerous businesses on the land he repossessed, including a paper mill, coal mine and restaurants.  

Similarly, Shi Fenggang, according to the CCDI report, used more than 10,000 square meters of public forest in the west of the village for a private garden with a pavilion, pond and greenhouse. He reportedly forced villagers to transfer their land to him at very low prices by cutting off power, digging huge ditches in front of their houses and charging exorbitant sanitation fees. Sometimes the encounters were tragic. Shi’s cronies threatened and surrounded an elderly villager over transferring land to Shi. The villager collapsed due to a stroke.  

According to the report, Shi pocketed 580 million yuan (US$85.3m) from illegal land acquisitions and demolitions. The villagers called him a “local tyrant.” Shi lived in an enormous villa, where he hoarded 7 million yuan (US$1m) in cash, more than 30 kilograms of gold and countless luxury items, including expensive cigarettes, alcohol, jewelry, calligraphy and artwork.  

Unrestrained Power
That is why the public deplores “flies,” a term to describe low-level corrupt officials more than State-level corrupt “tigers,” as they deal directly with ordinary citizens and are harder to supervise. 

“There aren’t really any checks and balances on village self-governance and the transparency, fairness and supervision the central government requires for rural governance exists only on paper,” Zheng Fengtian, a professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Renmin University of China, told NewsChina. 

His view echoes a People’s Daily article from 2015 following the CCDI’s report on corrupt village heads which pointed out that “village bullies” operate due to a lack of supervision. 

“Some towns oversee more than 10 villages... higher departments don’t usually have enough personnel to supervise them properly. Besides, some villages are in the mountains, far from the town, making supervision even more difficult,” Chen Yupeng, a county-level Party secretary in Yunnan Province, told the Party paper.  

Local supervision is near non-existent as villagers are unaware of their legal rights. This is sometimes by design. Some village officials, according to the People’s Daily report, forged government releases to misinform both villagers and more senior watchdogs. 

A big reason is the flow of young rural dwellers to cities, Zheng said. “The ones that stay are mostly seniors who are neither physically strong nor educated enough to fight back against these ruffians,” he said. “So, public empowerment in those villages is next to nothing,” he added.  

Zheng said that although every village has a mediation committee to resolve disputes, they are usually ineffective as few villagers dare stir up trouble, especially when their issues involve village officials. 

Local law enforcement is also susceptible to village toughs.  

Villager Wei Lijun recalled that Zhang Shixue once publicly claimed the local police station belonged to his son.  

Many villagers alleged that a decade earlier, Zhang burned the village’s account books and beat other officials to prevent them from going public with the village’s annual expenditures.  

“They [Zhang and his followers] stormed into the office with blades and clubs and beat anybody they saw... When I found that two account books and the official stamps were missing, I called the police. The local police chief came with another eight officers, but they didn’t stop the violence,” Cheng said. In the presence of the police, Zhang and his followers hit Cheng on the head and injured two other officials, Cheng added. 

In 2017, law information portal jcrb.com exposed how a village Party secretary surnamed Liang in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region enacted vigilante justice against a villager surnamed Zhou who struck Liang’s wife in a car accident, killing her. According to the report, Liang and his posse seized Zhou and dug a pit in front of her grave, intending to bury him alive. Police were called to the scene, but Liang and his clan refused to comply. Given the size of his gang, the first batch of police officers protected Zhou by jumping into the pit with him until backup of 130 police officers arrived.  

In 2016, Meng Lingfen, dubbed “China’s most powerful village committee director,” was sentenced to 20 years for seven crimes. Media reports described how Meng was tyrannical in wielding her power. She retaliated against any villager who opposed her, including destroying their orchards, harassing them over the village’s loudspeaker all day and illegally issuing fines. She had Hebei Television reporters seeking an interview beaten in the town’s government office.  

The case showed that the town government could not deter Meng, let alone supervise her. After the case went public, netizens asked whether Meng had backing from higher-level officers.  

A 2017 Xinhua News Agency report furthered these suspicions by condemning some higher officials for “colluding with and protecting village bullies.” 

According to the CCDI report, Shi Fenggang was backed by several town officials from the local government, natural resources planning department and police.  

“Some town governments are turning a blind eye to incapable or hostile village officials. Their connivance helped increase their power and even evolve into [criminal activity],” Li Zhengbin, secretary of Fengtai’s disciplinary inspection commission, told media after Shi’s misdeeds were exposed.  

Shi Fenggang is sentenced to life imprisonment at Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court, September 14, 2020

Swatting Flies
China is trying hard to crack down on the “flies”. In January 2017, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate published a guidance document on punishing village hoodlums and cracking down on their criminal activity and the officials that supported them. In 2018, the central government ordered authorities to include officials at the lowest levels. This year, the central government’s rule of law working commission passed a resolution on strengthening the rule of law in villages, pledging to root out all village rogues according to the laws.  

Support systems are also being improved. Lawmakers revised the Organic Law of Villager Committees in 2010, lowering the conditions for villagers to remove incompetent officials. It required every village to set up a supervision station consisting of villagers not already serving in local office to help maintain the transparency of village affairs and spending. Meanwhile, those found to have committed bribery during elections, harassed villagers or of involvement in illegal activities would receive a lifetime ban from village office.  

At the 19th National Party Congress in October 2017, the government proposed combining the “rule of law” in village self-governance with “rule of morality.” 

“One-sided emphasis on self-governance will cause problems [anywhere] as village officials are free from restraint. So we should work out more regulations and laws to strengthen restraints,” Zheng said. “Rule of morality refers to encouraging virtuous senior villagers to play a larger role in dealing with local affairs and disputes, since they are usually held in high esteem.” 

Shi’s criminality finally caught up with him. He was sentenced to life in prison by Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court on September 14, 2020. 

“From the cases my team has studied, punished village ruffians are generally older and consolidated their power 10 or 20 years ago. Village hoodlums are not as rife as they once were,” Lu told NewsChina.