Most residents of the tiny village of Panguanying had never been inside their local Communist Party office before. The single room, with its meeting table surrounded by red flags and an oversized hammer-and-sickle on the wall, was a place for high officials and cadres, not for ordinary farmers like them.
But things are different in Panguanying these days. This hardscrabble community some 300 kilometres east of Beijing, in the pastures north of the seaside resort of Beidaihe, has become the latest Chinese town to rise up and demand an end to corruption, and environmental degradation and even the chance to freely pick their own leaders.
On Wednesday, a crowd of perhaps 100 residents stormed past a single official – who tried to remind them they were breaking the rules – and briefly took over the village committee office in order to welcome this reporter, anxious to tell him of their grievances against the local government.
"I'm afraid. My heart is beating. I keep waiting for them to throw us out," Ren Fengrong, a stout 64-year-old woman, shouted above the excited crowd. Like the rest of the suddenly defiant residents of this town, Ms. Ren was grinning ear-to-ear despite her fears.
The villagers stayed in the office for about an hour, and the police never came to evict them. It was a small victory for something still completely new to much of China: people power.
The long-simmering anger among Panguanying's 1,800 residents boiled over last week when residents tried to use local council elections – which are usually stage-managed by the Communist Party – to choose as village chief a man known for his opposition to a giant trash incinerator that is being built on farmland just outside the village. He is also not a member of the Communist Party.
Pan Zhizhong, the 49-year-old sheep farmer who has emerged as the face of the anti-incinerator movement. He seemed certain to win when residents lined up at the local primary school to vote on Nov. 29. Or he did until a group of thugs, including a rival candidate who is also the brother of the local Communist Party chief, arrived at the school and carried away the ballot boxes in full view of dozens of stunned voters.
The anger in Panguanying is just one of the tens of thousands of "mass incidents" (as the bureaucracy here refers to them) around China each year. Most are motivated by either official corruption, environmental concerns, or some blend of the two. The government considers the exact number of mass incidents too sensitive to be made public.
Residents of Panguanying say they've been inspired by events in Wukan, a village in southern Guangdong province that rose up to oust corrupt local officials last January, eventually winning the right to choose its own town council.
Like Wukan a year ago, Panguanying is now in peaceful revolt. After the theft of the ballot boxes, hundreds of residents surrounded the local police station to demand answers about why officers on duty inside the polling station did nothing to prevent the tampering. Crowds have also protested in recent days outside the township and county Communist Party offices, demanding to know when a new election will be held.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, local officials say police are investigating the allegations – which are supported by videos seen by The Globe and Mail – that the election was intentionally disrupted. However, there's no timeline for a conclusion to that investigation, or for a new vote to be held.
Frustrated with the response from local authorities, the villagers – most of whom raise livestock for about $400 a month – are hoping to get the attention of China's new leader, Xi Jinping, who came to power last month promising to crack down on the country's runaway corruption problem.
Outgoing President Hu Jintao warned during a key Communist Party conclave last month that corruption had become so grave that it could "cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state."
The trouble in Panguanying began in 2009, when the local Communist Party boss, Pan Hongshu (no relation to the sheep farmer Pan Zhizhong), sold his family's farmland to a private company that wanted to build a $35-million waste incinerator in the middle of the village's other farms.
Though the party boss needed the consent of the village to make the transaction – which netted his family hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to documents seen by The Globe and Mail – residents say they were never consulted and that forged documents showing their approval had been presented to the government of Hebei province.
"China's waste-incineration technology is not very modern," said Shan Xinli, a retired environmental protection bureaucrat who raised the alarm about the project. "The chemicals it would release into the water, the soil, the vegetation, the air… could cause cancer."
The campaign against the incinerator scored a huge victory last year when Pan Zhizhong, the sheep farmer-turned-politician, convinced a court to halt its construction on the basis villagers hadn't given their approval.
Last week's village election was seen as something of a referendum on whether the incinerator project could be restarted.
In Panguanying, residents say that during previous elections they were forced to mark their ballots in front of local officials. "I didn't vote for [Communist Party boss] Pan Hongshu last time and they saw that. Three days later, 10 people beat and kicked me until my face was swollen," said Yang Zhiqiang, a 46-year-old farmer. "But when I went to vote this time I wasn't afraid."
The reason for that courage, many here say, is they're inspired by Pan Zhizhong, who first fought the incinerator project to a halt, then dared to run for office against the brother of the party chief.
The soft-spoken Pan Zhizhong is a charismatic but reluctant hero. Ask people here who they want to lead their village council and most shout his name. Though he says he'd rather be a farmer than a politician, the room drops quiet to listen when he speaks.
The odds remain stacked against Panguanying's little democracy movement. In Wukan, the last village that won the right to hold its own elections, residents say the city's economy has suffered in the year since – punishment, they believe for daring to buck the local establishment.
Standing in the middle of the Communist Party office, I asked the crowd around me if anyone was scared. "I'm not," answered Pan Zhizhong. The farmer standing beside him gave the same bold answer.
Quieter were the responses from those standing behind them: "I am." "I am." "I am."