I had encountered these men a few weeks before in the course of reporting a story about flawed village elections in China. Beijing had been touting the success of grassroots democracy, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had lauded the local balloting. But many of the polls were plagued by irregularities, and in Qixia, whence TIME's visitors had come, 57 village chiefs elected in 1999 found local Communist Party secretaries unwilling to hand over power. After two years of trying to wrest power from the old headmen, the 57 quit en masse.
Still, some 20 of them remained determined to expose the sham of democracy in Qixia. Some began investigating alleged corruption, painstakingly assembling evidence they say proved that local funds were being used to buy cars and houses for Party secretaries. For their troubles, the intrepid investigators were savagely assaulted. Some were left with permanent handicaps. Others had their homes burned down and crops destroyed.
In May 2001, TIME published an article about democracy denied in Qixia. A few weeks later, four of the Qixia village chiefs unexpectedly showed up at our Beijing bureau in their new shirts. "There are some peasants to see you," an alarmed assistant announced. "They seem quite scared. You'd better come quickly." I returned to the office to find the men awkwardly clutching mugs of tea in their shaking hands. They updated me on some of the people I had interviewed for the story: Three, including Lin Zuoyun, who was sitting in my office, had been brutally beaten. Two were under house arrest. A third Sun Xuede, who had been elected with 85% of the vote had disappeared. The four men were in Beijing to petition the central government for help. But their voyage proved ill-fated. Police from Qixia intercepted them at the petitions office and loaded them onto a train home. Back in Qixia, all four were badly beaten. Two were jailed for 38 days.
In December, 2001, Sun Xuede, the man who had been missing for months, was sentenced in a closed trial to eight years in prison for breaking into a government office and embezzling public funds. Sun's family and several of the other elected village leaders dispute the charges, especially since the office he supposedly burglarized was his own.
Over the years, the Qixia village chiefs served as my China reality check. Compared with the days when foreign journalists had to smuggle in ground coffee in their suitcases, my life in China was positively luxurious: I sipped lattes at Starbucks and collected tips on where to buy the best pesto in Shanghai. But every few months, the Qixia men would call with an update, reminding me of some of the grim realities beyond the city's cafés and marble-lined lobbies. Another village chief has been jailed, they would tell me. Two more have been beaten up, one so badly his arm dangles like string from his body.
For each call, the Qixia men bought an expensive disposable SIM card to prevent their numbers being traced. Usually, they would be in mid-sentence when their card ran out, and I would wait months before they saved up the money and courage to tell me more.
Last year, I got a call on my cellphone while at a cocktail party. Shanghai ladies sipped champagne near me, while the men discussed the city's frenzied property market. Sun Xuede had just been released from jail, four years early. "Hello, English-language journalist," he said, using the name they often called me. "I am out of jail now." I told him I was very glad and then didn't know what to say next. Filling the silence, Sun commented on the weather in his Shandong village. It was chilly, he said, but not as cold as it had been in prison.
Earlier this month, the Qixia men contacted me again. Liang Yumin, who had neglected to remove the cardboard from his collar at my office five years ago, had committed suicide. He had told friends he could no longer face the abuse from local officials. Over the years, Liang had been jailed and beaten. Any time he needed official authorization to sell his crops to the local cooperative, or to send his kids to school he faced obstruction. Liang told a friend he wished he had never run for office. He cursed himself for having been popular enough to win. With no end to the abuse in sight, Liang told one friend he was considering drastic measures. On November 25, he poured pesticide down his throat. The local officials ruled the death a result of stomach disease.
As Yu Baozhong, the farmer whose arm was crippled by a previous beating, told me of Liang's suicide, I heard someone screaming at him in the background. It was his wife, and she was telling him to get off the phone. Talking to me would only bring more trouble. Already, Yu had been jailed once and not been given the land usually apportioned to Qixia families when they have a child. Money was tight. But Yu kept talking. "I tell you, English-language journalist," he said, "I cannot accept what they have done to us. Even if if takes 10 years or 20 years, I will keep fighting."