Model village in disgrace in China leader arrested Killing reveals seamy underbelly of economic boom

May 22, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- It was hailed in the Chinese and Western press as "China's richest village," the nation's newest political model.

Over the past year, thousands came to Daqiuzhuang each week to soak up patriarch Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms.

And its headman, a virtual feudal lord who reportedly was a pal of Mr. Deng's, became a widely quoted apostle of development.

But now Daqiuzhuang's 63-year-old leader, Yu Zuomin, is under arrest in connection with a slaying and is alleged to have had a hand in a second killing. And his rural kingdom has fallen from grace.

Police now maintain checkpoints outside the borders of the small north China settlement, about 70 miles southeast of Beijing. Political pilgrims no longer pour in. The prices of illegally traded shares of stock in its enterprises have nose-dived. And praise for the village is nowhere to be found in the news media.

Behind the boom

Even by Chinese standards, Daqiuzhuang's joy ride at the very top of China's political heap was remarkably brief. Its saga underscores the seamy side of China's current economic boom and the recent growth around the country of local power centers beyond the control of higher authorities.

Daqiuzhuang's political roller-coaster ride also mirrors somewhat the rise and crash of another model village in north China, Dazhai, the exemplary Maoist commune of the 1960s and 1970s that was discredited in the 1980s after Mr. Deng's final rise to power.

Nothing has appeared in the Chinese press to suggest that the village's claimed economic achievements have been concocted from whole cloth, as happened after Dazhai's fall from grace. But that may yet come. At the very least, Mr. Yu's arrest casts doubt on the village's future.

Dirt-poor in the late 1970s, Daqiuzhuang claims more than 250 collectively owned factories, overseas investments, villas for its leading families and an average annual per-capita income of about $4,500, an astounding figure in a country where yearly income averages about $350 a person. One of the top managers last year reportedly made $260,000.

In late 1991, the Chinese press began to tout at every turn the village's sudden wealth, a propaganda campaign that picked up a full head of steam with Mr. Deng's reinvigorated campaign last year to accelerate the liberalization of China's economy.

The apparent downside

Western reporters who toured the village and interviewed officials noted the apparent downside of Daqiuzhuang's riches.

While the village's original 4,500 residents appear to benefit greatly from its success, most labor is performed by more than 20,000 transient workers drawn from all over China and treated as second-class citizens. The ravages of uncontrolled industrial pollution also are more than evident around the village.

But none of that appeared to trouble Mr. Yu, Daqiuzhuang's chain-smoking leader and member of a national political advisory body that serves as a sort of upper-house in China's Parliament.

In the village, Mr. Yu's power was unquestioned. He had headed its party unit, government and all its enterprises since the 1970s.

"I could become a deputy premier" of China, a Chinese paper recently quoted him as boasting in the past. "Who dares to punish me?"

Increasingly emboldened by his village's growing wealth and political importance, Mr. Yu proclaimed last year that Daqiuzhuang's new goal was to become the richest village in the world.

Hunting for rich brides

To that end, he came up with ever more outrageously avaricious schemes. His latest -- and perhaps last -- vision was to send 100 handpicked young men abroad from Daqiuzhuang with the promise of bounties if they bagged rich capitalists' daughters as brides and induced their new fathers-in-law to invest in the village.

And so perhaps it was only natural for Mr. Yu to order armed villagers to block all entrances to Daqiuzhuang in February, when hundreds of police from the nearby city of Tianjin came to investigate a killing.

The villagers held off the Tianjin police for three days before allowing them to enter Daqiuzhuang. According to Chinese press reports, what then emerged from their investigation was a sordid tale:

In December, after a hearing in a kangaroo court, four villagers, perhaps on Mr. Yu's orders, had beaten to death a local accountant suspected of embezzlement. Two months later, the village reported to Tianjin authorities that the death was "accidental."

Tianjin officials who then came to investigate were detained for 13 hours by village guards, prompting the hundreds of police to be called in. While they were held at bay, the four suspects escaped. Two still are at large. Even after blocking the murder investigation, Mr. Yu appeared to be beyond the law. In March, he showed up in Beijing at the annual meeting of the national advisory body to which he belongs -- though he kept an unusually low profile and at one point growled at Chinese photographers who tried to snap his picture.

Accused and arrested

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