[Documents menu] Documents menu

Model Chinese Village Chief Turned Rogue

By Tay Hwee Peng, The Straits Times, 31 March 2001

It could happen again, especially if the income gap between countryside and city widens even more, warns an author who traces the rise and fall of a rural leader.

YU ZUOMIN, the power-grabbing chief of China' once richest village, might have died two years ago, but more Yu Zuomins could emerge so long as the country's rural economy continues to grow.

This is especially so as income gaps between the countryside and the cities continue to widen, said Mr Bruce Gilley, author of a new book, The Rise and Fall of China's Richest Village: Model Rebels.

Yu was the charismatic head of Daqiuzhuang, once the model village of rural reforms for China, until his fall from power in 1993 in connection with a migrant worker's murder case.

The reason why Daqiuzhuang got rich was that it was acting like a private company, outside of the state-planning system, Mr Gilley said in an interview with The Straits Times.

And there are thousands of villages like Daqiuzhuang in the coastal areas today, he noted.

Daqiuzhuang hogged the headlines in both local and foreign media in the 1980s for its successful transformation from one of the poorest villages in China to an industrial powerhouse, boasting a per-capita income of over 20,000 yuan (S$4,280) in 1989.

This was an exponential jump from a figure of less than 200 yuan more than a decade ago when the village in northern China's Hebei province first made its foray into industrialisation.

So successful was the village that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scores of high-level officials visited the village for its holy scriptures of success.

They included former Premier Wan Li, current Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress chief and former Tianjin mayor Li Ruihuan, and disgraced Communist Party veteran Zhao Ziyang.

But success soon went to Yu's head.

Mr Gilley said: At first, his struggle was aimed at narrow objectives... But by the early 1990s, it widened to include political goals.

He became rich and started to take on big issues and big powers... Yu began to articulate a powerful new discourse of social and economic justice for China's peasants.

The man who once ranked among China's top 10 peasant entrepreneurs and was a national model worker became implicated in the 1992 murder case where a migrant worker was beaten to death during a kangaroo court conducted by village officials.

Yu's crimes included harbouring criminals in the murder case, obstructing justice and bribery of a state worker.

Sentenced to 20 years in jail in 1993, he died in 1999 at age 70.

Obviously, there is a limit to how far he can go, as the case has shown, said Mr Gilley, who is a contributing editor to the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Even so, the story of Daqiuzhuang reflects a new form of political struggle among peasants, he said.

Increasingly, they are engaged in insider politics, having meetings with the policymakers, lobbying for their causes, like what you would expect in more developed countries.

They can send representatives to Beijing to argue their case, or hire lawyers to take on the county government. These are the sort of things money gets you.

But he also warned of the consequences for local leaders if they lose their sense of proportion.

Yu became paranoid about the outside government and was unable to rule in an open and tolerant manner, Mr Gilley said.

This is a contributing factor that led to his downfall.