When Liu Jianzhong last saw his wife, Ma Huimei, she was wearing handcuffs and a uniform that identified her as an inmate at the Fangshan detention center. A line of police stood between them..
Ma and six co-defendants were charged with taking part in a series of protests against the head of their village, who they claimed had enriched himself through corrupt land deals and then tried to steal an election in 2010.
Liu hadn’t been allowed to visit his wife since police took her away in the dark early morning hours of August 20, 2010, according to his account. His chances to catch a glimpse of her came at court appearances such as the one last month in a courthouse at Beijing’s southwestern suburbs. Liu looked at his 52-year-old wife, and the tired face and gray hairs that detention had given her, and tried to think of what to say.
“I told her to believe in herself because at no time did she commit a crime,” said Liu, 53, who’d closed the restaurant they owned after Ma disappeared into the hands of Chinese security; after more than 20 years of marriage, it was hard getting along without her. “She said that she believed the law would prove her innocence. I said the same. . . . They would not let us say much.”
In the machinery of law and governance set up by the Chinese Communist Party, the misfortunes of Ma Huimei are unexceptional. But there’s a growing sense that the risks of not revamping the system that ensnared her are rising for the Communist Party and its desires to maintain social stability.
As the party readies for a once-a-decade changeover of national leadership, scheduled to start with a congress that opens Nov. 8, speculation has spread over whether and to what extent the new administration may introduce change.
The nation’s state council earlier this month released a treatise on judicial innovations – about 12,000 words when translated to English – that described recent advances and called for more to come. And China-watchers took note when a state news item last week described Politburo plans to amend the party constitution without references to Mao Zedong, an omission that could portend shifting preferences in the capital.
It’s not known, however, what any of it will add up to. When China’s outgoing president, Hu Jintao, began his term in 2002, he was described in terms very similar to those now used for his successor in waiting, Xi Jinping: a man whose personal views were vague to the outside world, but who was seen as being interested in reform.
A decade later, though, the party governs much as it did then. Meanwhile, disquiet about issues such as official corruption and a fundamental lack of social fairness has grown graver.
Many observers wonder how far the Chinese Communist Party can push serious reform, given the extent to which corrupt officials are thought to shield one another and their shared financial interests. It’s often the party’s own absolute hold on power, and the resulting lack of public accountability that enables, that appears to stand in the way of change.
In the village of Raolefu, for example, the problems stemmed not from having elections, but from accusations that a Communist Party secretary was trying to derail one.
'STEALING' AN ELECTION
In the darkness of the night on July 27, 2010, a voice rose from the courtyard of the village committee building: “Move! Move! Move!” As that command rang out, a man was handing a box of votes through a guardrail to a waiting contingent of police officers ready to push their way past a scrum of agitated villagers.
The directive, according to people there at the time, came from the mouth of Wei Jiandong. He was a bureaucrat made local potentate by his twin positions as the head of the village committee and the Communist Party secretary of Raolefu.
The crowd didn’t take it well. A video from that evening shows people shoving their way and running to the gates of the courtyard, where they blocked the door. About 30 miles from the dead center of downtown Beijing, Raolefu went spiraling into something between protest and revolt.
Election officials had announced earlier that Wei lost the election to a popular local businessman named Song Jianzhong, who’d previously served prison time for fraud. The vote count was 1,025-963 in Song’s favor. However, no winner could be declared because Song’s total didn’t exceed half of all votes collected.
There were reportedly 18 invalid votes and one abstention, leaving 51 ballots missing. People in the crowd yelled that they wanted to see the 51 votes, which officials said were filled out incorrectly. If only five of them went against the committee head, Wei would have been kicked out of office.
China has permitted village-level elections since the 1980s, and they usually are closely supervised affairs. At the committee building at Raolefu, there was a red banner hanging with the Communist Party slogan “always adhere to the party’s basic line,” and some 100 local officials and staff were on hand. But after the villagers blocked the doors, they were in control. The guardrails buffering the leadership from the public suddenly made them look penned inside.
A man in the crowd shouted, “How much money did Wei Jiandong give you?”
Another turned to one of the police officers guarding the officials and asked, “Don’t you have a guilty conscience?” and used an obscenity.
Locals had been filing petitions in recent years at higher-level government offices, alleging that Wei used his positions to broker illegal real estate deals.
As one of their documents put it: “During the eight years of Party Secretary Wei’s time in office, the land in our village was lost. . . . Most farmers in the village become poorer and poorer.”
It added: “But the entire family of Wei Jiandong is rich and his family members all drive high-class cars.”
POLICE CRACK DOWN
The sparks didn’t fly for long in Raolefu. Police swarmed into the village the next day. The voting box, and with it any proof of fraud, was taken away.
The Communist Party let matters calm down for a bit and then made its move. About three weeks after the election, police started rounding up Ma Huimei and her co-defendants, including Song, the man who’d run against Wei.
“The public security bureau held a meeting with the head of the (prosecutor’s office) and the court to decide the verdict of this case,” said Liang Xiaojun, a Beijing rights lawyer who represented one of the accused. “Of course, this was carried out under the coordination of the local political and legal committee,” a powerful entity that’s used to assert the party’s will over law enforcement.
A second attorney involved with the case, hired to defend Song, said the conclave wasn’t convened to determine the outcome of the trial but how to handle the situation of the Raolefu villagers’ activism in general. “It’s a problem of public security, a problem of social stability,” said Gao Yuhui, who works for the Kangda Law Firm, a Beijing operation with extensive political ties.
The indictment against the seven defendants suggested that prosecutors weren’t interested in airing what happened during the election in Raolefu. The group was charged with “gathering a crowd to attack a state organ” – interfering with government offices where they’d petitioned against Wei. A district judge sentenced them to between three and five years in August 2011.
Villagers in Raolefu said it was common knowledge that a close associate of Wei’s got promoted last year to director of the judicial bureau in the district where the case was tried. A local government website confirmed that the official in question, who previously worked at the sub-district office that oversees Raolefu, was in fact transferred to head the judicial office.
Then in December, an intermediate court in Beijing remanded the decision to the district office, saying the facts weren’t clear and the evidence was insufficient.
Prosecutors changed tactics and added the elections to the indictment, saying the group had engaged in a conspiracy to unseat Wei that included paying and organizing people against him.
It was those charges of gathering a crowd to disturb social order that Ma faced last month as her husband watched in the courtroom. A verdict has yet to be issued.
Whatever the final court decision – time served with probation is a possibility – Ma hasn’t been a free woman for two years.
Raolefu didn’t hold another election. Instead, Wei was quietly shifted out of office and given a new position, as a senior official in the demolition department of a state-owned company. The firm works in the area around Raolefu on the very sorts of development projects that villagers accused Wei of using to fuel his corruption.
A staff member who answered the phone at the demolition office confirmed that Wei is a director there and took a phone number and message. The call was not returned.