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A Chinese experiment in democracy meets fierce resistance

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Roots of dispute

The drama here began last November, when Han Baocai, an 80-year-old farmer, filed a complaint with the Tianjin municipal government about the way in which the Huiguan village council had sold more than 50 acres of commonly held land to the higher-level township government of nearby Xiaozhan.

Villagers claim now that Xiaozhan paid 10,000 RMB per mu ($8,500 per acre), and sold it to developers for 800,000 RMB per mu ($685,000 per acre), alleging that the Xiaozhan and Huiguan authorities shared the profits at the villagers' expense.

Xiaozhan deputy Communist party secretary Liang Hongbin insists that the township paid a fair market price for agricultural land and that villagers were compensated according to the law.

Party Secretary Hao Shumin acknowledges the Xiaozhan government sold the land to developers for nearly twice what it paid for it, because the land's status had changed from village agricultural land to nationally owned industrial-use land, increasing its value. But he says the price was less than a tenth of what the villagers claim.

Huiguan villagers, however, believed they had been cheated, and in January they began the process specified by the village democracy law to recall their elected council.

From the start, they say, the Xiaozhan authorities put obstacles in their way, which villagers sometimes managed to overcome by appealing to officials at higher levels of the district government hierarchy.

But with a recall committee of five villagers duly elected in February to oversee the impeachment referendum, Xiaozhan stopped sending representatives to Huiguan village meetings. Villagers complain that since the law requires all village votes to be observed by an official from the local township, the local government could nullify all their decisions simply by refusing to witness them.

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