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Lessons learned on the road

The David and Goliath story of Yang Youde, the farmer who decided to fight off land eviction teams with his homemade cannon, attracted our attention and the team flew down to learn more.

Last modified: 2 Jul 2010 11:02
Youde fires his cannon. (Photo: AFP)

The David and Goliath story of Yang Youde, the farmer who decided to fight off land eviction teams with his homemade cannon, attracted our attention and the team flew down to learn more. What follows are details that didn't manage to make into our broadcast report, but which I feel are important as they highlight issues concerning domestic media censorship and local government operations.

A mystery vehicle followed us after our morning visit with Farmer Yang, all the way back to Wuhan city proper. Five minutes after returning to my hotel room, I was told some officials were waiting to speak to us.  I walked into the hotel lounge -- and lo! Seven of them.

We sat down and a woman began to explain that the initial local news article appearing in Changjiang Times about Yang Youde was incorrect because the journalist only spoke to the farmer and never approached officials for the other side of the story.  She went on to say that after her department spoke with the editors, the newspaper printed a retraction the next day, though word had already proliferated online.

Her office took great pains, she said, to kill the fraudulent story from 211 domestic Chinese websites. She concluded that since it's settled that the story of Yang Youde is a fake, then by implication Al Jazeera English's report would be perpetuating a lie.

Now, before our arrival to Wuhan, we had called the said journalist from the Changjiang Times. He sounded depressed and morose, and said he could not assist us in our story.

The woman then went on to point out that other journalists, including one from Chinese state media giant Xinhua, had shown up for the story of the farmer and his cannon as well. But all of them had been set right on the facts by local officials. They'd all left without publishing a thing.

A second official interjected, a Mr. Fan Chun, carrying a load of documents in hand. I welcomed the rare opportunity to sit down with officials to hear their side of the story. Far too often, we place calls to various government departments and never hear back from any of them. Mr. Fan allowed us to look over the documents, in one which mentioned the local government would stand to benefit by some $95 million US dollars by allowing the land development project to proceed.

"This is interesting! Can we photocopy this?" we asked.

"Er. No," said Mr. Fan.

The documents quickly got pulled aside.

Mr. Fan then explained to us that China is a socialist society and farmers do not own property. The state owns property. Everything is collectivized. Therefore, Farmer Yang's demand for compensation stands no ground.

The real estate market makes up 10% of China's GDP. 

We then asked if we could have an on-camera interview with an official from the Dongxihu District. No one present would give us a response. But after pressing the issue, they said they would get back to us later in the evening.

The following day, officials did not arrange an interview but a surprise press conference. Domestic journalists from Wuhan Television were also there, filming the proceedings. They did not ask a single question, so the press conference was essentially a conversation between myself and a Mr. Feng Mi, the official who appears in our broadcast.

My first question was whether the entire contents of the Changjiang Times article were "100% incorrect." Mr. Feng did not answer this, but did emphasize that the men who showed up near Mr. Yang's property were not from an eviction team. He did confirm there was a team of men who had shown up "near, but not on" Mr. Yang's property.

Farmer Yang had told us he'd been thrown into an unauthorized prison for 51 days, where he'd been beaten eight times. I asked Mr. Feng what he knew about it.

The official explained that Farmer Yang attended political education classes, a requirement of all farmers in the district.

Al Jazeera saw a copy of Farmer Yang's receipt detailing the personal effects he had to give up to attend these classes. Listed were his belt and mobile phone. I admit political education classes in China are unfamiliar territory, so perhaps it is standard for students to strip down for attendance.

Our exchange lasted about half an hour. On our way out the government building... we noticed the offices of the land developers on the ground floor.

It has been a few days since our reporting trip. We received a call from Farmer Yang, who told us men had not stopped showing up at his home to harass him ever since our interview. He said they interrogated and recorded each session.  Farmer Yang also claimed a Dongxihu official took pains to fly down to Guangdong Province, about a two-hour flight away, to visit Farmer Yang's son in the military. A word was had with the military commander there, and a warning given to Yang Jr.

Right before this report aired, Farmer Yang called us again. Unidentified men had come, but in a case of mistaken identity went after his older brother. They beat the man on the face with bricks, and the brother was unable to see out of one eye and was sent to hospital.

We have called Dongxihu officials about Farmer Yang's continued harassment. They deny any knowledge of what's been happening, and suggested perhaps Farmer Yang was lying. In an attempt to fact check, we asked Farmer Yang to send us some evidence. See below.