Behind The Bamboo Curtain

The golf course was a bridge too far. A golf course? Duan wasn't having it. He grew up here. Lived all his 52 years here. His brother, a Communist Party official, lives next door — in a much nicer house. Duan himself had been a teacher and a farming team leader, a respected man in town. So he did some research, found the Chinese laws forbidding stealing land from peasants. He copied them and passed them around to villagers.

This royally ticked off local officials. He was jailed for 48 hours until the other production team leaders wrote impassioned letters on his behalf.

He continued the fight. Village cell phones were tapped. Meetings were secretly recorded. Allies were bought off. When the local pressure got too great, he went north and hid in the city of Xi'an for six months. His wife often fainted because of the stress. Police monitored his house almost every day.

"My family was not very happy about what I did," he says.

His biggest fear was dying. Those who stand up to developers sometimes simply disappear. A stern television warning echoed in his ears the whole time: "Anybody who hurts the county's development will be severely punished." He imagined his family never finding his body.

"In this region, a lot of people die in the name of development," he says, though such claims are hard to prove or disprove. "If the local government wants to develop and you are against them, they hire some gangsters, and they beat you to death and use cement to bury you."

Finally, after writing letters to the Xinhua news agency — the Communist Party wire service that serves as de facto voice of a nation — a story appeared praising Duan's actions in defending his village. He had done what once would have been impossible: taken on local strongmen and won. It came at a price. His family likely will never get over the stress. The developers had already destroyed the crops in hopes of starting construction.

At least the village has peace. For the moment. But there are other developers out there, marching from Beijing and Chengdu. One day, they will arrive. The peasants are fighting a war they will eventually lose. It's a war against the developers' taking their land, a war against irrelevance, a war against progress. A war, the astute among them realize, against many of the things these Olympic Games symbolize.

"The countryside won't benefit from the Olympics at all," Duan says. "You can just tell."

In this little hamlet, where birds chirp and sons farm the land their fathers farmed, the Olympics are just another reminder that China is leaving them behind. "I think we were forgotten," he says. "We are forgotten. I think we are forgotten by the government and forgotten by the policy. I'm very worried."

Road Diary, entry 5: IN THE SHADOW OF PROGRESS Driving between Zhouzhi County and Mianyang

We're in the mountains again, but this time it isn't postapocalyptic. Little groups of clay-shingled houses, with their sweeping rooflines, huddle together in the elbows of valleys. Trickles of smoke waft from chimneys. Beekeepers check on their boxes by the side of the road. It's like driving through the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" movie set.

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