Tea Leaf Nation

What’s Wrong With this Chinese Town?

Officials in Sihong County appear out of control, and Chinese media is starting to smell blood.

Image: sihong.gov.cn/fair use
Image: sihong.gov.cn/fair use

They worked under cover of night in early June, dumping truckloads of dirt on the new highway and planting fast-growing soybean seeds in the thin soil. Then they erected a sign alerting passersby to the freshly sown crop. This wasn’t some ecological initiative like urban roof gardens or solar street lamps; it was an attempt literally to cover up a sprawling highway construction project. Officials in Sihong, a county of about one million people in China’s wealthy, coastal Jiangsu province, had built the network of blacktop without a needed green light from provincial land management authorities. (China has strict quotas on how much arable land can be converted for construction projects due to concerns about food security and grain self-sufficiency.) Over the last week, their bumbling efforts to cover their tracks, with a field of beans, have made them the laughing-stock of Chinese state media and the country’s Internet.

The liberal Beijing News broke the story on July 25, quoting a local truck driver who said he had been part of the team hired to unload the soil. He claimed the dirt, which came from construction sites, was dumped and bulldozed flat. The article contained photos showing how one need only dig a half-meter hole in the soybean field by hand before hitting asphalt. It didn’t take long for the story to spread. In a July 28 editorial, state-run People’s Daily called the scene a farce and asked, "How do we bring the curtain down?" That same day, the official Xinhua news service called the Sihong bean caper "preposterous" and said the local government had incurred the "ridicule of everyone."

Media didn’t have to search long to dredge up a few precedents. The People’s Daily recalled that another county in Jiangsu had paid farmers to lay out straw and corn on a construction site in 2010; another in the eastern province of Hubei laid plastic over a concrete road and planted a vegetable garden in 2011 in order to try to evade remote sensing technology that China has been using since 2000 to ferret out illegal building projects. But as the story percolated, many realized that Sihong was not only the birthplace of the amusing bean fiasco, but also the hometown of a group of seven petitioners who on the morning of July 16 had gathered outside the offices of the China Youth Daily, a state-run paper, in Beijing and swallowed pesticide. The mass suicide attempt was intended as a protest against land seizures by officials back home. The group had tried bringing their grievances to government officers earlier, but to no avail. Here was a story smack at the intersection of awful and the absurd.

The soybean story gave a legitimizing cast to the pesticide protest. Prominent Beijing-based commentator Cao Jingxing took to Weibo, China’s largest microblogging platform, to remark, "It does not seem strange when you have a place with a government as extraordinary as this that its people would run to Beijing and drink pesticide on the street." As more details emerged, so too did the terrible logic behind the Sihong petitioner’s decision to drink poison. Chinese with grievances at the local government level are allowed to bring their petitions to Beijing for resolution. But the system, based on centuries-old tradition, is hopelessly broken and ends in proper mediation for only a lucky few. The Beijing News reported on July 29 that the group had tried 29 times to petition the government with no result, and that their appearance on July 16 was their third visit to the paper. It said their dispute was linked to another construction project, also in Sihong, that had resulted in the forced demolition of many homes. Villagers told the paper that those who complained or refused to accept the government’s compensation deal were kidnapped from their homes and held until they signed demolition agreements.

The picture that began to emerge of Sihong was a place of both bumbling incompetence and vicious thuggery. Wang Xing, a criminal lawyer with the Beijing-based Huicheng Law Firm, noted on his Weibo account that media reports had said the Sihong petitioners had been trying in vain for years to get the central government’s and media’s attention. He wrote to his nearly 30,000 followers that it took a mass suicide attempt to "grab the attention of a society numb to the point of necrosis." (The post was subsequently deleted.)

The latest act in this bizarre play affords telling insight into the cycle of bad behavior that often happens at the local government level in China. State media said on July 28 that 14 Sihong officials had been punished for mismanaging the construction project that had sent the seven petitioners to Beijing. The People’s Daily wrote that Sihong’s Communist Party secretary was given a warning; the current and former party secretaries of Xiangyang town in Sihong were both made to listen to "admonishing lectures." Meanwhile, it added, the petitioners, who all survived, were criminally detained on suspicion of "provocation." Live Nanjing, one of the Jiangsu provincial capital’s main news channels, posted the news on its website, and readers who commented seemed baffled. One said the story made his head spin. Another said the Chinese legal system has a long way to go. A third said the only reason the officials were "punished" was because they’d failed to keep the peace.

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o