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Date Posted: 23:30 05/01/2006

A rare victory in Jiangxi

China Youth Daily provides details of rural triumph in a small village in east China

THIS WEEK, the China Youth Daily devoted an entire page to a modern tale of rural redemption. Villagers in Yanxi, Jiangxi Province, had been slowly poisoned and impoverished by a ramshackle zinc smelter constructed by a fly-by-night enterprise that happened to have been backed by members of the local government. But now, the newspaper triumphantly reports, years of relentless petitioning have finally paid off, and the smelter was shut down a couple of months ago.

The moral of the tale, one assumes, is that the procedures do exist to allow lowly farm workers to bring unscrupulous bosses to justice. The story offers the faintest of hopes for the many rural communities currently being hemmed in and ruined by overdevelopment, but it also reflects the central government's faltering influence on the hinterlands.

The details are not especially shocking in the context of China's untrammelled industrial expansion. In 2001, a smelting company called 'Chuangang Ferrous Metals Limited', headed – naturally - by the younger brother of the village Party secretary, selected a chunk of land in Maoping, a tiny hamlet consisting of around 30 households. Soon after construction began, local men, women and children gathered at the site of the plant carrying pickaxes and buckets of excrement. A few old timers sprawled themselves out in front of the bulldozers, forcing the chastened county government to make a promise that the smelter would not pollute the local environment or damage the interests of the local people.

But by May 2002, a stench resembling bad eggs or the overzealous use of fertilizer pervaded the area, spreading as far as a vineyard about a kilometre away. The local paddy fields soon resembled scorched earth. The grapes and peanuts and watermelons all looked as if they had been burned to death. The villagers were wandering around in a daze, their water and food contaminated by lead. Yields were down by more than half. Three years later, local well water still bubbled with impurities.

And so, protests and petitions ensued, with local residents joined by those from adjacent villages. Delegations were dispatched to the provincial capital, Nanchang. The plant continued to try to defy closure orders - the boss claimed on two separate occasions not to have received the documents, and the county government were reluctant to press the matter because the plant was a valuable source of tax revenue - but justice eventually prevailed, the paper says.

With the China Youth Daily, it is always tempting to engage in old-fashioned Kremlinology. The newspaper's intrepid reporters and editorialists continue to express their frustration towards local authorities and their unwillingness to pay heed to Beijing. 'Why can't the orders of the central government get out of Zhongnanhai?' the paper asked in November , and their anguish is shared by the central government. In this case, good sense eventually prevailed after a three-year struggle. Some, of course, are not quite so lucky.

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