CHENGDU -- It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Friday, and Huang Qi is knee-deep in the drudgery of defending villagers’ rights.
We’re driving south out of this steaming metropolis in southwest China, headed to a village restaurant slated for demolition to make way for high-voltage power lines. The family that owns the restaurant thinks the government is stiffing them on compensation. That’s where Huang comes in.
Huang is a talker, but his vocabulary is drastically different from that of China’s other prominent human rights defenders. He doesn’t discourse on the nature of freedom; he rarely mentions the constitution or the inviolable dignity of the individual.
As the high-rises give way to corn fields, Huang is quizzing villagers about the compensation per square meter of the restaurant. He’s explaining the government permits required to carry out a legal demolition. He’s weighing the appraisal of fruit trees. He mentally catalogues each answer, assessing the government’s compensation package and what can be done to increase it.
“Democracy is great; elections are great. But in China you need to work on very practical things when you’re working on this stuff,” Huang said. “Democracy is an action -- not something that comes out of your mouth.”
Huang has been waging a campaign to protect the interests of China’s dispossessed for 17 years -- eight of which he spent in prison. After working for more than a decade in manufacturing and business, in 1998 he created a site exposing human trafficking and then started China's first domestic human rights web site. Two years later he became the first known “cyber dissident” to be jailed in China for online activity. Released in 2005, Huang went right back to human rights work. In 2008 he was rewarded with another three-year jail stint for reporting on how shoddy construction of a school led to student deaths following an earthquake.
Now 52 years old, Huang maintains many of the mannerisms of a Chinese factory owner. He chain-smokes cigarettes and relishes a good deal -- or a good fight. When not fielding phone calls from aggrieved citizens, he is coaching farmers on how to resist forced demolitions and squeeze more compensation out of local officials.
His website, 64tianwang.com, is a clearinghouse for the injustices that plague the bottom rungs of Chinese society: violent evictions, forced abortions, attacks by club-wielding thugs. The site has been blocked in China for a decade and a half, but Huang shrugs that off. He believes it's still reaching its audience.
Higher-level government officials monitor Tianwang for tip-offs about corruption among local officials, Huang says. China’s leaders are in the midst of the most sweeping crackdown in decades on corrupt officials -- and rival political factions. With fear gripping Communist Party cadres, the threat of publicity can be an effective deterrent for local despots.
“In China the law isn’t important -- power is important,” Huang says. “The key is finding the methods that the government is most afraid of.”
Urbanization and nail houses
At the restaurant on the rural outskirts of Chengdu, Huang gives the owners a 30-minute crash course in negotiations and resistance: Demand to see all the government permits. Don’t allow any demolition before compensation is agreed on. If there’s violence, take pictures and immediately send them to Tianwang volunteers to put on the website.
“Resistance gives you bargaining power,” Huang says. “Power produces respect.”
As he departs, the family that owns the restaurant loads the car down with bags of peaches from their trees.
Huang’s success in helping China’s poorest residents stand up to the Chinese state keeps his phone buzzing throughout the day.
“Hello… yes, this is Huang Qi… ok… look, send me this in a text message. Write the time, place, people and your phone number. Don’t include your own commentary, don’t curse the government -- just write down what happened... If you can’t type then have a kid type it for you.”
Rural land seizures, both legal and illegal, have been the grease in the wheels of the largest wave of urbanization in human history. As China’s leaders flung sprawling networks of highways, high-rises and high-speed trains across the country, farmland has been acquired and repurposed en masse.
Deals turning rice paddies into shopping malls are immensely profitable, but little of that profit reaches the land’s original inhabitants. Land seized by local governments is often resold to developers for dozens of times the compensation that farmers receive. In return for being kicked off their land and deprived of the only occupation they’ve ever known, farmers are usually given a lump sum payment or apartments in new developments.
Villagers who hold out for higher compensation sometimes end up living in “nail houses” -- a Chinese term for the last building left standing after its neighbors have been demolished, like a stubborn nail that can’t be hammered flat or yanked out. Occupants of nail houses are often subject to the full gamut of intimidation and violence: bricks through windows, illegal detentions in "black jails," and vicious attacks by armed gangs.
Huang meets a group of core Tianwang volunteers for lunch before visiting Yuan Ying, the proud resident of a “nail car.” Yuan, a 46-year old woman who used to work in a bread shop, refused the compensation offered for her home. After the building and subsequently the tent she lived in were toppled, Yuan bought a boxy van and parked it on her property. She now sleeps alone in the van amidst a vast sea of rubble.
Crushing corruption and dissent
Driving toward our last stop of the day, Huang proudly catalogues the local officials who have been thrown in jail after corruption exposés. China’s President Xi Jinping has pursued a two-track approach to squelching disobedience, simultaneously jailing huge numbers of corrupt officials and the very activists campaigning against corruption.
Most activists describe China as in the midst of a mounting crackdown on the pillars of civil society: independent media, activists and lawyers. That momentum culminated in the recent detentions of many well-known human rights lawyers, a move that some say marks the death knell for the rights defense movement.
Huang sees things very differently. He is one of the only high-profile activists who say the human rights situation in China is improving. He’s also one of the only activists who has spent more than a decade fielding phone calls from peasants who are having their land seized and their loved ones thrown in prison.
Scrolling through his website, Huang says he’s seen a dramatic drop in human rights abuses at the grassroots: violent evictions and illegal detentions. In 2013 the government abolished the dreaded “re-education through labor” system, a move that Huang says signals major progress.
But other activists are clearly dismayed about Huang's claim that things were improving.
“This is a dangerous thing to say,” said Liu Feiyue, founder of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a prominent human rights web site. “It’s a lie that’s not based in reality."
Liu has worked on civil rights issues for a decade and has been detained briefly by police. Earlier this year he described the human rights situation as the worst since 1989. Liu suggested Huang's positive spin was rooted in hopes that "he could win favor with the government."
Is this progress?
A more generous interpretation might point to how long Huang has been in the movement and just how bad things were when he began. One of the first major investigations by his website documented government officials profiting from forcing fishermen to undergo mandatory appendectomies. Other pieces detailed the brutal suppression of Falun Gong practitioners. When he began, without social media or web sites challenging government propaganda narratives, there were virtually no channels for individuals to air their grievances.
If Huang and his volunteers are currently trying to avoid confrontation with authorities, they’re not doing a very good job. Li Min, one of the leading citizen journalists documenting abuses for Tianwang, disappeared into police custody 24 hours after accompanying us on these home visits. Li's husband had spent the previous three months in the hospital after he was brutally attacked by men armed with wooden clubs. (Local police hung up the phone when questioned about both cases.)
After one last visit to victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, we pile into the car and head back toward Chengdu. Over the course of nine hours and 200 kilometers (124 miles), we’ve visited four homes and one hospital, accumulating several gift bags of peaches, lettuce and green beans in the process.
Looking out the window as we fly down the highway, Huang reflects on the number of calls he gets and how things have changed since he began this work almost two decades ago.
“When the people take part in defending their own rights, that is the first step in a democratic movement,” said Huang. “You must have the people first.”
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