He Jianguo couldn't finalize the story choices for the latest edition of his newspaper, Voice of the People, although he had been discussing them with fellow editors all day.
After deciding on two stories exposing corrupted officials and forced demolitions at Nangaoying village, Hebei Province, the team hesitated on whether to do a commentary about the village election which locals had been preparing for eight months since May last year. A compromise was forced upon them Saturday when a governmental notice killed the idea.
"Doing a story on the election at this point of time is too risky. The government has been watching us closely lately," said 46-year-old He Jianguo, sitting in his six-square-meter newsroom Sunday for an interview with the Global Times.
Voice of the People, a four-page newspaper established by He Jianguo and his friend He Yanhong, is known as an opposition newspaper against the official Gaoying Bao, owned by the village government. The two newspapers have been involved in a public feud since March last year, when the former was established after the township government agreed to re-elect the village committee after their three-year term should have expired, and amid overwhelming protests against the current village management. He Jianguo's vendetta against the government is also a personal one, as he was laid off from his job in a village-owned glucose factory in 2010 as he disagreed with the village committee's plan to relocate him and all the residents.
Press room brawl
Gaoying Bao, established in 1993, is the only official media publication in Nangaoying. It mostly carries information about governmental policies and plans, speeches and visits by village officials, and updates on village-owned corporations. It didn't publish regularly until Voice of the People came into being in March, when He Jianguo and He Yanhong decided to set up an opposition newspaper to overthrow the village committee.
Voice of the People, previously known as "Heart of Gaoying People," denounces village officials for conducting forced land expropriation, violent demolitions, and blames them for the fall of village-owned corporations which used to make the village one of the richest in Hebei. Gaoying Bao, however, fought back every time by publishing stories trying to clear the names of the officials.
In its first edition, Heart of Gaoying People carried a notice about the re-election and said the current village management should be replaced since it had served over three years, longer than the term limit stipulated by Chinese law. Other editions posted pictures of village officials' luxury cars, and commentaries accusing the village committee of illegally trading with developers, misappropriating public assets, and violently demolishing people's homes.
In response, Gaoying Bao publishes reports saying that nail houses, or households who refused to be relocated, have been affecting Nangaoying's reconstruction project, and that "the so-called Heart of Gaoying People was full of lies and slander."
After several rounds of such attacks, the two newspapers began to focus more on promoting their own candidates for the election. He Jianguo and He Yanhong gathered a team of nine for the election, with He Jianguo leading them as a campaigner to become the next village director. But the election failed to reach a result acceptable to all, with villagers accusing the government of ballot tampering.
"Since then, the newspaper became a tool to promote our team since then, but more importantly it spreads the truth about the current village committee and help people get determined to say no and have another fair election," said He Jianguo.
Now, He Jianguo has grown cautious about publishing opposition stories. His newspaper was temporarily shut down in November last year as the official Gaoying Bao announced it was an illegal publication and he received warnings from local authorities. The newspaper had to change its name from Heart of the Gaoying People after the printing company He's team cooperated with was warned off by the government.
"It's like we are running with scissors," said He Jianguo, "After all, it's not an officially registered newspaper and we don't have a professional team either."
With He Jianguo and He Yanhong, the only two major editors with a high-school education, Voice of the People collects stories from several freelancers among the villagers and publishes irregularly based on requests or major incidents at Nangaoying, such as the election. When three or four stories are collected, enough for a new edition, or when the official Gaoying Bao publishes something He and his team object to, the stories are edited and sent to another printing company that helps to do the page design. The newspaper prints 3,000 copies per edition, tailored for the number of households in Nangaoying, and these are sent to residents' homes either by mail or are delivered by hand. The total cost for publishing one edition is around 1,000 yuan including postage. At first, He Jianguo and He Yanhong split the paper's running costs despite being unemployed, but these have since been taken on by the team as a whole.
Nangaoying, one of the biggest urban villages in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, boasts more than 10,000 residents. A grand reconstruction project involving more than one square kilometers of land started in July 2010, together with massive demolitions to make way for new residential buildings, schools, and healthcare and sports facilities.
So far some 98 percent of residents have moved out of the village after signing a contract with the government, and were originally slated to come back in two years and move into new buildings allocated to each household. But none have moved back yet after two and a half years. Some 120 households are clinging on to their old houses, living without water or electricity.
"They've sold the buildings that were planned for returning villagers, and none of us got a new house as promised," Bai Shuzhe, a 68-year-old villager in Nangaoying, told the Global Times. He Jianguo has collected the addresses of the scattered villagers to ensure the paper's distribution.
Bai said she spent six months with her son living on the roof of her old house in 2011, in a protest against the demolition. The village government sent thugs to her door, cut off water and electricity, and threw firecrackers into her yard, she said.
"All that the Voice of the People publishes is true. It's all about facts we can see," said Bai, explaining the newspaper enjoys wide popularity among villagers.
However, a village official supervising local security and stability, told the Global Times on condition of anonymity, that He Jianguo's team and the newspaper were spreading nothing but rumors and were driven by profit.
The official showed the Global Times reporter pictures and videos showing a group of people, allegedly led by He, petitioning at the Hebei provincial complaints bureau and the township government building in Gaoying. The official said they attacked the village's demolition office during the night, throwing rocks to break its windows.
"They're mobs who are not helping secure a better future for Nangaoying," said the official, noting that the village government had made a lot of time dealing with these people that have distracted from the task of rebuilding the village.
"I don't read either of the two newspapers," said another villager named Zhang. "It's useless watching two parties arguing with each other while nobody really tries to make practical efforts to solve problems."
Future election plans
After the election in May, an independent "village election campaign commission" comprised of nine villager representatives, decided to hold another election on February 24. The election did not go smoothly either, as on February 23, the supervising Gaoying township government posted a notice calling the election a "non-governmental act."
The Global Times reporter managed to enter the official Gaoying Bao office on Sunday, but was turned away when trying to interview the editors.
"I have no comment on the election," said a newspaper employee while holding the latest edition of Gaoying Bao, bearing a front page notice saying that holding an election is illegal without prior consultation with village representatives. The newspaper also sought to discourage villagers from voting in the election.
He Jianguo had been preparing for this election for eight months and was flabbergasted at the result.
"I don't know when the village will embrace true democracy, since it is proving so difficult for us to hold a simple election," said He Jianguo.
Nevertheless, He Yanhong said she planned to write a commentary on the failed election herself - using a softer tone than before. She said she used too many harsh words to criticize, or even insult the village committee, but that didn't work well and brought her trouble.
"I was thinking about taking over the official Gaoying Bao newspaper when I was successfully elected to the village committee," said He Yanhong, who said she was detained for 10 days after she posted a video clip online about the local demolitions. "That seems impossible now," she said.
Though the election slated for Sunday didn't go ahead, hundreds of villagers still went to the balloting venue, with several plainclothes police officers on site for security concerns. The independent election commission started negotiations Monday to discuss further election planning and to calm residents.