Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Party animals

Laurence Brahm is in my opinion one of the most fascinating people in Hong Kong -- a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation (Shambhala is the original word for James Hilton's Shangri-La). Brahm also finds some of the most insightful stories on life in China. Here is a reprint of a story he tells of local party officials in HaiRou called 'Rebels at Beijing's front door'

Huairou district, a rapidly growing suburb of Beijing, is an excellent example of local defiance of authority and the rule of law. It is a vivid illustration of how such a breakdown can occur under the nose of the central government.

A year ago, major rioting occurred when thousands of farmers overran construction sites along the new Beijing-Chengde expressway. Police were attacked by farmers who had not been paid for their expropriated land. The funds set aside for them were allegedly pocketed by district officials.

As a result, the farmers took the law into their own hands, and turned to extortion to make money. This was made possible by the vacuum in law enforcement and political authority.

One of the most violent clashes took place outside a popular tourist rest spot in the district, one Sunday. The farmers blocked the entrance to the Mountain Bar roadside restaurant, in an attempt to extort money from the owners. When police failed (or feared) to take action, the owners took up kitchen knives to repel the thugs. After that bloodbath, the farmer gang kept its distance, and the Mountain Bar went back to business as usual.

The incident was far from isolated. In fact, such extortion attempts have effectively become an industrial sector in the Huairou district.

"The Mountain Bar case represents law enforcement with Chinese characteristics," explained one local official. "No matter what the law says, [it] is meaningless. The rights of each individual business can only be protected here by violence."

Huairou is not a far-off rural county. It is a district of the municipality of Beijing - only an hour's drive from the front gate of Zhongnanhai.

Even during the Qing dynasty, when the breakdown of national authority became widespread, the emperor at least kept control over his own capital.

Now, it is almost like the mafia rules sub-districts of the capital. As one foreign investor commented: "If this is the case only one hour's drive from Zhongnanhai, then imagine what is happening in the rest of the country."

Municipal officials in Beijing seem to live on dreams of the 2008 Olympics and flattery from foreign investors.

At the district level, authorities seem to wallow in corruption and alcohol most of the time.

Huairou's district officials openly defy the central government without fear or qualm. "I do not care how high the authority or who the leader is," said one defiant party secretary of a major district bureau. "In Huairou, we do not have to listen to them."

Such officials can be found in their offices on Monday morning from 8.30am to 10am - and at no other time. Instead, they spend their days in a wide range of saunas, brothels and restaurants.

They begin eating lunch at 10.30am, which involves a massive consumption of alcohol. By 2pm they head off for more entertainment - saunas, brothels and karaoke - until they drop. This is how they function almost every day.

Another official, when asked about the breakdown of law and the emerging phenomena of "mafiaism" in her district, responded furiously: "I will not allow anyone to say there is a state of mafiaism in Huairou. I will demonstrate my ability to enforce the law."

Two years later, nothing she promised to investigate has been addressed. Like a cancer, social breakdown has become worse, turning Huairou into Beijing's model district for an emerging system of "mafiaism with Chinese socialist characteristics".

That official's defiant retort was followed by a banquet in a Brazilian roast-meat restaurant, when she became uproariously drunk and forced other officials to drink with her.

Don't ask about the rule of law in Huairou - unless you're prepared to drink yourself into oblivion.


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