What struck me most about the four farmers who showed up at TIME’s Beijing bureau back in 2001 was that they were wearing new shirts. With callused hands and dirt under their fingernails, these men were trying to blend in with the well-dressed crowds in China’s capital. But one look and you could tell they were poor peasants in unfamiliar city clothes. Their shirts all had identical shirt-box creases. One peasant, an apple grower named Liang Yumin, tugged at his neck throughout our conversation, fingering the piece of cardboard still tucked under his collar.
I had met these men a few weeks earlier while reporting a story about flawed village elections in China. Beijing had been touting the success of grassroots democracy, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had lauded the balloting. But many of the polls didn’t result in true change. In Qixia, the area in eastern China’s Shandong province from where my visitors hailed, 57 village chiefs were elected in 1999; local Communist Party secretaries refused to hand over power, however. After spending two years locked out of their own offices, the 57 quit en masse. Soon after, a Qixia official told TIME the situation was “completely resolved.” [Full Text]