China's Little Che Pushes Rural Reform

By Zhang Yanlong
Published: 2009-02-27

Translated by Bao Lingyun, Rui Bingyou
Original article:

Ma Yonghong, 25, exudes a shrewdness and maturity inconsistent with his age. Scarred by two unsuccessful attempts to shake up local politics in his mountain hometown in Shaanxi, he still harbored ambitions to impact rural agriculture and leadership there.

After losing a 2005 election for the village chairmanship, Ma devoted four years to improving local education, and founding a farmers' association in his hometown village of Hexing.

These formative experiences fostered a perception of Ma among other volunteers as a revolutionary in the Maoist mold, devoted to rural issues. "Have you ever seen the television series, Youth of Dream? Had I been born in that time, I would have been the first revolutionary to stand up," he said. Volunteers have also drawn comparisons of him to Che Guevara.

But despite ramping up his grass-roots involvement and refining his campaign tactics, he lost a second run for village chair in 2008, against the incumbent He Gang.

The Political Path
Ma's political awakening could be traced back to 2004. In his second semester of freshman year, Ma involved himself in rural aid work organized by his school. He and other students brought donated clothes and books to a poor rural village in Lantian, Shaanxi province. They spent a day teaching lessons and spending time with the children there.

Ma said the moment when children lined the streets to welcome him and the kind words of thanks from parents, that filled him with an unprecedented sense of purpose: "I had come from the countryside, and knew I was meant to return there to help my hometown out of its poor and backwards state".

Then, again in early 2005, Ma felt the call to return to the countryside for more service. He decided to teach in his hometown of Hexing. With a population of 800, it is located in the mountainous swath of southern Shaanxi, where villagers make a living from planting maize, wheat, and tobacco.

Ma linked up with a host of youth volunteers in higher education institutions around China's northwest. He founded club of volunteers called "Northwestern Youth Column", and appointed himself its captain.

He led fourteen undergraduates from seven Shaanxi colleges and universities on a trip to Hexing village. They gave seminars to adults on law and financial management, and taught classes to renew interest among local students in reading and writing. Ma even founded a night school for local adults.

When attendance at one of Ma's night classes was at its peak, locals fanned out from the classroom and sat on the square. It was then that Ma was struck with the idea to run for the chairmanship of the village committee. Standing on a platform, he promised: "Once I succeed in the election for village chairman, I"ll quit my studies and serve you all diligently".

In the end of 2005, as he began formalizing his run for office, he was disqualified for having a non-agricultural residence permit. He filed suit in the People's Court of Luonan County, demanding to be a legal candidate. He won the suit, but ultimately lost the election to He Gang, the incumbent, after two rounds of voting.

He Gang and the village party secretary commented then that Ma "dealt with things inappropriately". They cited an example of him publicly criticizing the Party's village branch organ and the village committee at one of his classes. They claimed he was "simple minded" and would never be smart enough to gain support from the county and town-level governments, support that they said would be crucial to upgrade rural infrastructure and and restructure the local economy.

But despite his loss, Ma gained overnight fame as the "idealist undergraduate". He would continue with his grass-roots work for the next three years, and go on to run for the chairmanship again.

In 2006, Ma founded a peasants' association, through which he aimed to unify the purchasing of a variety of necessary farming materials, such as fertilizer and seed. Bought in mass by the association, a bag of 50kg fertilizer was three yuan cheaper than if bought from the supply and marketing cooperatives.

It was a success-- 125 of Hexing village's 232 families joined the association, and 34 families from other villages as well. Ma set a 20 yuan membership fee, and shares in the association were 100 yuan each.

Later, the group purchasing of fertilizer and seed by the association was defined as illegal by local industry and commerce officials, who concluded it had no license for commercial activity.

"Actually, the peasants" association was stopped for infringing on the interests of the local Agricultural Machinery Station, which sold fertilizer and seed. The peasants" association broke no laws by purchasing for personal use."

In response, Ma joined up with hundreds of farmers to sue the Luonan Department of Industry and Commerce, which ultimately reversed its decision.

Through these experiences, he eventually decided to change his tactics. After graduating in 2008, he ran for public office again.

Ma said he had gone into the first election unprepared, and vowed not make the same mistakes during his campaign for the 2008 election. This included writing a series of letters to government agencies outlining how the current chairman had broken laws, which aroused the attention of the local Party Discipline Inspection Department. As a result, the chairman was fined 3,600 yuan.

Ma said his agricultural aid work had drawn open support from officials, scholars and media. "I became close with many officials, we got along well." According to Ma, city and county governments of Shangluo supported him, but that the town and village-level officials were against him. An official even expressed his support right before the election. After the results came in, he invited Ma to come work with him in Shangluo.

Ma warned openly before the second election that: "If the unlawful practices of the county government or village election committee lead to an unfair election, we'll reveal them and fight determinedly within the scope of the law. This means lawsuits, involving media, reporting to higher levels of government, and non-cooperation movement. Even if after all that we have still not succeeded, we"ll find a way to make them pay for what they did."

On December 23, 2008, the Hexing village committee held its election for a new administration. A crowd had gathered to see Ma and police, along with government and Party officials, were sent to keep order. Before ballots were cast, Ma and his opponent spoke to the crowd. It was Ma's second time challenging He Gang, the incumbent, for his seat.

Ma took the stage and shouted: "Unification makes us stronger, and competition brings vigor. Let"s strive to make Hexing the first village to comprehensively assist agriculture in the Northwest. I hope I can all understand and support me. Please vote for me!"

The election went on until 6:00pm. As the first round had seen neither side earned a majority of votes, a second round of voting was called. After the final tally, Ma lost with 147 votes to He's 296.

Birth of a Figther
Ma's family is among the poorest in the village, a reality that played into his rebelliousness from a young age. At the sight of others playing with water guns, he once crossed a mountain to buy his own with 1.3 yuan he had saved from picking and selling herbs.

When she saw him playing with his new gun, his mother assumed he stole money from home to buy it, and after an argument, he threw a fit and jumped into a well.

His parents said that ever since, they had restrained themselves from exercising authority over him. Ma said that from that moment on he knew that "fighting was meaningful".

But his implusiveness and headstrong attitude have also led him to extremes. Once, in middle school, Ma was inspired by a passage from a textbook covering opposition to superstition in Chinese history.

After reading it, Ma accused a popular woman in the neighboring village of being a "witch", reporting his suspicion to authorities. The incident infuriated his parents, who beat him until his shoulders bled.

Later in his high school, while applying for membership into the Communist Party he cut his finger open with a knife and signed his name in blood. His shocked teacher sent him home, where his parents beat him again.

In discussing his political beliefs, Ma told the EO: "There are three ways to participate in rural reform. The first is grass-roots--getting serious about your work on the ground, and starting from the bottom up in communities, as I did before.

"The second is the way of elites--for instance, officials and entrepreneurs have the capacity to reward and transform villages from the top down. The third is the middle course. Scholars like MaoYushi and Wen Tiejun do research at the bottom base of the economy, and thus have the right to speak for peasants."

Ma said he believed the latter two were the ones with power, and that his devotion and sacrifice over the four years he volunteered largely failed because they could not be understood or accepted by the villagers. He said he had since decided to take a middle course--become a post-graduate and push for reform through scholarship and research.

Ma said that many of his friends have told him that he had matured. Ma agreed: "Looking back on these past four years, nothing has changed but us." Despite this, Ma insisted that though his approach might have changed, his core ideals have not.

He said that of recent graduates who become village officials, few of them wanted a future in rural work. He believed they couldn't find another job, were attracted by the idea of working on policy, and hoped the position would be a springboard for more significant work in government.

"And the local government itself has no idea how to use these graduates anyway. It's all 'you mind your business, I'll mind mine'. Oftentimes, the town government just uses them as typists," he said.

But after the two failures, Ma's views towards democracy have changed. "I used to think democracy was simple. China hasn"t reached the point of fully implementing democracy. Otherwse, those elected wouldn't be bullies and thugs."