The party, though, seems less inclined to help this most loyal cadre. Even though Yu has been in his post for nearly two years, the appointed party secretary—who has maintained a 24-year grip on power—still refuses to give him the tools needed to do his job: accounting books, bank slips and the all-important chop needed to authorize any official transaction. Across the apple-growing valleys of Shandong, dozens of other elected leaders have found their jobs similarly stymied by party strongmen unwilling to give up their long-held power. Within Qixia municipality, for example, many elected leaders haven't been given keys to their offices, even though they are two-thirds into their three-year terms. A few tried to perform their duties anyway and were attacked by hired goons who beat them up and trashed their houses. None of Qixia's village chiefs have been paid since being elected; most haven't even been able to find out what their salaries are supposed to be.
So earlier this year, after nearly 14 months of lame-duck effort, 57 elected leaders from Qixia, including comrade Yu, quietly resigned from the jobs they were never allowed to perform. "There was nothing else we could do," says Yu, wistfully fingering a framed document certifying his electoral win. "We finally ran out of options."
When the first ballot boxes were unveiled in the late 1980s, village elections were championed as the solution for China's rural problems, providing hundreds of millions of peasants with direct access to the people who control their destiny. As the gap between the urban rich and rural poor had widened, the central government worried about the potential for rebellion among disenfranchised farmers. Chinese history is littered with rulers overthrown by bands of marauding peasants. Village elections were supposed to assuage modern-day farmers tired of steep taxes and stagnating incomes. In some remote hamlets, the polls sparked real change, bringing in energetic leaders who tackled problems the appointed officials never bothered to solve. But for many rural citizens, the ballots they cast have been as empty as promises of wealth from faraway leaders in Beijing. In some places, votes were bought for as little as $4 or the boxes were stuffed with fake ballots. Even if someone was fairly elected, local self-styled Emperors who had profited off decades of rule were often loathe to give up any power, especially if doing so would allow newcomers to check doctored accounting books. A study headed by a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing calculates that only 30% of the estimated 600,000 elected village leaders have been able to fully do their jobs. "These elections are a sham," says a Shanghai political researcher, who has spent three years studying the effectiveness of village polls. "It is a way to look good without actually changing the system."
Comrade Yu certainly tried, in his small way, to reform the system. He carefully canvassed his 630 villagers to see what improvements they wanted, and he dutifully tried to keep track of the dozens of fees and taxes citizens paid into village coffers. The thousands of dollars collected from the peasants disappeared into an account controlled by party secretary Liu Zhuqiang. Yu says Liu amassed enough money to buy one house in Xicheng town and two in Qixia city—even though his salary could not cover such lavish digs. (Liu refused to be interviewed for this story.) Last year, when Yu finally threatened to alert provincial authorities to alleged improprieties, his phone line was cut and incoming mail stopped.
In nearby Beilugou village, Wang Zhenke suffered a worse fate. After he tried to convene a meeting looking into village finances without the party's approval, the party secretary beat him up, as other appointed officials simply looked on. While Wang recovered in the hospital, thugs smashed the windows and door of his family home. Six months later when Wang rewired the village's electrical circuit with his own savings—and without the party secretary's approval—the goons came and pummeled him again. And during the Chinese New Year festivities earlier this year, a second house Wang had been building was mysteriously demolished and his fields were destroyed. Two Chinese journalists who visited him were detained for a couple of days and after a foreign reporter arrived, Wang was hassled further. "I do not know whom to turn to," he whispers. "The corruption in Qixia is too strong for small people like me to fight."
When Wang joined 56 other village officials last year to protest their restricted power, he thought their collective complaint would speak loudly. In reams of carefully handwritten letters, they alerted county and provincial authorities to the alleged corruption siphoning village funds into party-secretary pockets. There was the rice wine factory that supposedly never made money even though it sold plenty of liquor. There was the road that never got fully paved despite the taxes collected to fund it. And there were the drivers and lavish suppers that the party secretaries could afford, even though they maintained there was not enough money to build badly needed wells and irrigation systems. When the 57 elected leaders heard nothing back from the provincial chiefs, they dispatched a letter to the National People's Congress, which convened in March to discuss big-ticket issues like political reform and endemic corruption. But a month of breathless waiting proved in vain. All the Beijing cadres did was forward the complaint back to Qixia—to the very same officials the village chiefs had charged with obstructing their jobs. Intimidation started anew: more windows were broken, phone lines cut and fields destroyed. Bowed, the 57 gave up and resigned their posts. There are no plans among city or provincial authorities to discuss the Qixia resignations further. One Qixia cadre contacted earlier this month proclaimed the matter "completely resolved."
Such official apathy stretches throughout eastern Shandong province. An hour's drive from Qixia, in Yujialan village, Lu Yankui can no longer work his fields because of a knife attack last year from which it took him months to recover. While he was recuperating in bed, the bespectacled village chairman was finally given the keys and accounting books he needed to do his job, but party cadres haven't bothered to arrest the thugs who carved eight deep gashes in his body. "Corruption flourishes in Shandong's soil," says the 36-year-old Lu. "Village democracy has no hope here unless the whole system is changed."
The farmers who hoped their voices would finally be heard are too scared to push for their elected leaders. "They tried to help us," says one fruit farmer in Huaishudi village, "but we cannot fight for them because the party secretary will get angry and raise our taxes." The appointed chieftains, says Yu, have succeeded in destroying what nascent democracy had been growing in Shandong's apple orchards. So, the elderly village chief digs deep into his memory for a solution to the age-old problem of official malfeasance. "If the Chairman were still alive," he says, "he would shoot all these corrupt officials." For comrade Yu, despite his new role in China's democratic experiment, some things are still best dealt with the old-fashioned way.