Chinese cyber-dissident takes farmers' land fight online

CHENGDU (AFP) - He spent years in jail for running one of China's few websites dedicated to reporting human rights abuses. But now, the authorities appreciate his coverage, Mr Huang Qi said as his smartphone buzzed with fresh news of injustice.

His website, '64 Tianwang', named in part after the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, runs headlines - "Village Officials Stab Campaigner", "Gangsters Detain Protester" - rarely seen in ordinary Chinese media.

The stories the dissident has collected over nearly two decades chronicle injustices during the largest urbanisation in human history, which has transformed China from a largely rural country to the world's second-largest economy.

The process has made fortunes for some but seen tens of millions of farmers deprived of land their families worked for generations.

Mr Huang has faced government reprisals for recording their efforts to resist, but now believes he is protected by the authorities - partly because of a much-publicised anti-corruption drive under President Xi Jinping.

His apartment in a quiet quarter of Chengdu in the south-west bursts with beeps from his phone and laptop, heralding the arrival of information from a network of contacts in villages and cities nationwide.

"How many people protested? Have you got pictures?" he barked down the phone at one correspondent, simultaneously chatting online to a woman detained by police who was sending him pictures of a dumpling lunch they provided.

At the current meeting of the National People's Congress, China's Communist-controlled parliament, Premier Li Keqiang said the authorities need to ensure "the interests of people in rural areas are protected" under land reform.

But as he fired off another text message, Mr Huang said the number who had lost their land was "constantly increasing".

When he set up his website in 1997, the sale of rural land for property development - often after farmers are violently evicted - was emerging as a lucrative source of local government revenue, with individual officials making fortunes through kickbacks from developers.

But the process left a fifth of farmers uncompensated, while others were on average paid "a fraction of the mean price authorities themselves received", according to a 2012 survey by US advocacy group Landesa.

The result was an explosive rise in rural protests - from marchers blocking roads to attacks on government offices - which are now thought to number tens of thousands each year, many providing fodder for Huang's website.

In gleaming white shoes, Huang strode across a muddy construction site carved out of what was once farmland to meet Ms Yuan Yi, whose home was bulldozed in December but stayed put in a blue tarpaulin tent.

"I think the compensation is not fair, so I will remain here," she declared.

An hour's drive away, Huang paused beside red banner fluttered outside a luxury graveyard in a foggy mountain valley, reading: "Fight corruption, investigate corrupt officials".

A dozen women surrounded an open fire for warmth, protesting that the local government had not compensated them for the land now lined with hundreds of expensive marble headstones.

Chinese media remain subject to close censorship, and the women said newspapers in the area had been ordered not to report on their plight.

China's ruling Communist party has responded to increasing protests by spending billions on a huge "stability maintenance" apparatus - including expanded surveillance of dissidents and extra-legal detention centres known as "black jails".

In 2000, Mr Huang was jailed for five years, the first ever Chinese "cyber dissident" to be imprisoned for online activism.

He was imprisoned again for a further three years in 2009 for reporting on low-quality school buildings which collapsed in a massive earthquake the previous year in Sichuan which claimed 87,000 lives.

Mr Huang says he was physically abused in jail, and regularly gulps down handfuls of medicine for his ailments.

But under Mr Xi, he said, the use of "black jails" is becoming less common, while protesters are now detained on public order charges rather than being sent to forced labour camps. "There is still repression, but at least it's a legal process."

His website - whose name "64 Tianwang" refers to the date of the Tiananmen crackdown - is blocked in China. But Mr Huang says he finally feels safe.

He mostly avoids criticism of senior officials or the kind of calls for radical political change, which have seen scores of activists jailed, and he praised Mr Xi's anti-corruption campaign, despite it lacking systemic reforms to prevent graft.

Even so the effort is undoubtedly popular among a public infuriated by official corruption, while the ruling party's internal watchdog is inviting ordinary citizens to send it allegations.

"The top levels of government no longer think of me as a threat," said Mr Huang. "They even see me as useful, because I expose a lot of cases which they don't know about."

"Around a third of people tell me they don't care about money, as long as their local officials were jailed. Now Xi is doing the job for them."

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