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Monday, October 3

China Closes Web Site That Reported Taishi Village Standoff

“It really was one of the last resources left to us -- one of the last bastions of justice and social conscience for academics and rights activists alike,” Hou said. “A forum like that is really very rare in China. This really is a very big attack by the government on rights campaigners.”

The following is an October 3 report posted on the Radio Free Asia website. (This is a site to bookmark.)

For background on the importance of one small village in China, read It's really over for Taishi at Simon World.

HONG KONG: The Chinese authorities have shut down a popular online news and discussion forum that gave prominent coverage to a campaign by villagers in the southern province of Guangdong to remove their elected chief amid corruption allegations, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

The Yannan forum, known in China as a BBS, carried an announcement dated Sept. 30, 2005, announcing that the Web site had now closed. The site, popular among academics, journalists, and rights activists, had previously had all Taishi-related news reports and discussions removed from public view.

“Yannan will be undergoing a complete clean-up and rectification, and its relaunch will be notified at a later date. We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience,” the announcement said.

An employee at Yannan confirmed the closure to RFA Cantonese service reporter Mei Kin-kwan. “Yes, we are closed,” he said. “Sorry, I can’t give any interviews to the media. I won’t say anything else. Just wait for our statement, ok?

A major blow
Beijing-based rights activist Hou Wenzhuo, whose non-governmental group has been following events in Taishi village closely, said Yannan’s closure came as a major blow.

“It really was one of the last resources left to us—one of the last bastions of justice and social conscience for academics and rights activists alike,” Hou said. “A forum like that is really very rare in China. This really is a very big attack by the government on rights campaigners.”

China issued a revised set of regulations governing Internet news content last week, which observers said were aimed at tightening controls on information related to demonstrations and street protests on Web sites, bulletin boards and Web logs, or blogs.

The regulations target sites that publish fabricated information or pornography and forbid content that “harms national security, reveals state secrets, subverts political power, (and) undermines national unity.”

They also ban posts that “instigate illegal gatherings, formation of associations, marches, demonstrations, or disturb social order,” indicating a lesson learned from anti-Japanese protests that swept China last April and spread in part due to postings on Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms.

Test of grass-roots democracy
The Taishi standoff, widely seen by Chinese scholars and the legal profession as a test of local governments’ commitment to village democracy and rule of law, began in July after a 100 million yuan (U.S. $12 million) land deal involving more than 2,000 mu (133 hectares) of village land.

Villagers and their lawyers said accounting procedures around the sale were not transparent, and they suspected Chen of embezzling public funds. In clashes earlier this month, riot police ended a hunger strike and fired water cannon on protesters, many of them elderly, prompting widespread outrage among ordinary Chinese with access to news reports of the incident.

Last month, villagers fought against government attempts to stack the re-election committee in its favor, electing seven of their own candidates ahead of a key vote slated for Oct. 7 on whether village chief Chen Jinling should remain in office.

But a concerted pressure campaign by local officials from the next two levels of government above Taishi has resulted in the resignation of all seven representatives to date, residents told RFA. Unconfirmed reports say detained villagers were released in return for signatures on a petition supporting Chen.

“They mobilized more than 100 people,” one male villager, who asked not to be named, told RFA Mandarin service reporter Yan Ming. “Each production team enlisted the relatives of each team member to beg, cheat, and frighten people. They used every possible method. The result was that more than 390 people agreed to withdraw from the campaign to remove the village chief, although we really don't know the true figure.”

Hou, in an earlier RFA panel discussion on rural rights campaigns, said any optimism that the Taishi standoff would result in better protection from rights abuses for rural communities was misguided.

Call for power-sharing
“Without even the tiniest amount of power-sharing, there is no hope at all that ordinary citizens will have their basic rights protected. China’s rural communities make up 80 percent of the population, but in terms of political power, it’s really less than 10 percent,” she told RFA’s Mandarin service.

“Why has a tiny village election in Taishi escalated to this stage? Because the authorities have remained implacable in the face of support from academics, from journalists and the legal profession,” said Hou, an activist with the Beijing-based Empowerment and Rights Institute.

“They won’t budge an inch, because there has been no change, not even a small adjustment, in the structures of power,” she said.

Replying to Hou, Beijing Institute of Technology economics professor Hu Xingdou said central government had to tread a delicate path with local officials: “I think the government has its own problems. For example, local governments are the grassroots of the Party, and it can’t afford to alienate them entirely.”

“But in the case of such obvious violence and wrongdoing as we saw in Taishi village, I think the central government should use its power to intervene,” Hu said."

Original reporting in Cantonese by Mei Kin-kwan, and in Mandarin by Shi Shan and Yan Ming. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie, and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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