An ancient Chinese village in the shade of skyscrapers fights for survival.

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The residents of China’s Xian village congregate most afternoons in a sitting room at 30 Fanyang Main Street, a brick alley just wide enough to allow three-wheeled carts to pass abreast. The alley is flanked by the rubble of demolished and hollowed-out homes. “No. 30 is our anti-corruption base,” says Lu Yongquan, one of the organizers of the village’s defense. He is a boyish-looking 47-year-old, with gray flecks peppering his black hair, which he blames on the years of pressure. “In all of China, there is perhaps no village that has resisted for this long.”

Standing precariously in the heart of the new central business district in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, the 1,400-family Xian village spreads across 45 acres and is ringed on all sides by new skyscrapers and apartment towers. Cater-cornered from one edge lies a Lamborghini dealership, on another, the W Hotel. Five minutes away by foot, cranes add the final touches to what will be one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. My own 32-story apartment building lies on the village’s southern edge, looking out over the village’s serried and shapeless homes.

Needless to say, the land on which the village sits is valuable; state media has labeled it the “diamond village.” In 2009, the government launched the Xian village redevelopment project, promising villagers apartments in the new high-rise towers upon completion, but a lack of trust and transparency has hampered the project. For the most part, the villagers support the redevelopment of their ancestral land, which was settled almost 800 years ago by the first Xians and Lus and Liangs—the village’s major family clans—so long as they control the process. (Today most of the villagers have one of these three surnames.) For the last six years, wave after wave of village families has yielded to the government’s and developer Poly Real Estate Group’s pressure, and signed over their homes. Still, a couple of hundred “left-behind families” remain, as they call themselves, holdouts living among a sea of rubble and vacated homes, demolished to prevent occupation.

During the spring of 2013, the excavators’ frenetic demolition of village homes was a constant topic of conversation in the sitting room at No. 30. “Every morning, when a new building collapsed,” Lu recalls, “my bed shook like an earthquake.”

Looking down on Xian village: red flags strung to bamboo poles mark the leftover families’ homes, so the excavators won’t “accidentally” demolish them, villagers say.

It began when a villager was almost beaten to death by local security, a squad of thugs that villagers refer to simply as “the gang.”

On the afternoon of May 23, 2013, Lu Yongquan and a group of villagers in No. 30 were chatting desultorily. As Lu Yongquan sipped tea, Lu Youtian, a quiet villager who normally kept to himself, burst in. Blood glistened on his forehead, and his words were frantic.

“They beat me,” Lu Youtian yelled. “The gang beat me.”

The gang had been stationed at each of the village’s six gates. Security guards had slapped Lu Youtian’s sister when she asked them to clear new rubble from her doorway. When Lu Youtian came for an explanation, the guards beat him, too.

Lu Youtian grabbed one of the 7-foot-long bamboo fighting sticks that the villagers stashed in No. 30 and sprinted east on Fanyang Main Street. Lu Yongquan and other elderly villagers chased after him.

I saw all this unfold with my own eyes. From my apartment, I watched a group of 10 or 12 young men hurry west on Fanyang Main Street. The two sides collided beside the sewage lake, in front of the old village police station, now empty and boarded up. Lu Youtian was outnumbered at least 12 to one.

He slashed the bamboo fighting stick back and forth, like a cornered elephant fending off a pride of lions, and slowly back stepped. When he stumbled the pack was on top of him. Lu Yongquan saw it happen as he ran up with his video camera rolling.

The thugs’ bamboo fighting sticks beat into Lu Youtian’s body. One smashed down a wooden chair; the back broke off, and Lu Youtian reached for what was left and brought it over his head, protecting his skull between its legs—a shield of sorts. One after another, thugs beat Lu Youtian with any weapon they could get their hands on: bamboo sticks, steel pipes, wooden stools, a steel slatted door, and a shovel. No one is quite sure when Lu Youtian lost consciousness.

A sexagenarian pitched a brick into the circle of thugs

Villagers amassed. Many dialed the police. Then, Old Lu, a sexagenarian standing beside Lu Yongquan, pitched a brick into the circle of thugs beating his neighbor. The thugs charged at the villagers on the rubble mound; both Lus ran for their lives.

At No. 30, they spun down an alley and jumped into an abandoned building, pulling the door shut. That it still had a door was a great stroke of luck. Lu Yongquan pressed his weight into the door, and Old Lu grabbed a wooden ladder lying inside and jammed the door shut. The thugs bashed and kicked the door, but it held. Eventually, a crowd of villagers came and screamed at the thugs, and they left. I watched the group of thugs retreat to the developer’s blue-trim dormitories.

On the rubble mound at the edge of the sewage lake, a large crowd formed around Lu Youtian. When I arrived, I thought he was dead. He did not move. A large gash was cut into his head, the skin on his limbs was raw, and deep wounds marred his body. Then I saw his eyebrows flicker.

A couple of policemen arrived. Two medics carried a stretcher down Fanyang Main Street. The masses pleaded with the officers to pursue the suspects.

“He was beaten by Poly’s thugs. They ran away!”

“We know where they are hiding!”

“Are you going to arrest them?”

The two officers made no move to follow the suspects, so a mob of elderly villagers converged on the developer’s dormitories and redialed the police. When the burly neighborhood police chief arrived, she crossed into the dormitory complex. Soon she returned. The suspects are gone, she told the villagers.

“We thought if we blocked Huangpu Avenue we could put pressure on the government,” says Lu Yongquan. The road is one of Guangzhou’s main arteries. “Higher-ups would have to come out and investigate.”

The light flashed from red to yellow to green, and older villagers sat down on the road. Eventually, China’s SWAT officers, in full riot gear, paraded onto the scene. One woman in her 60s fainted. Low blood pressure, the villagers say. Some minutes later, another, younger woman, slumped as well. When district officials finally arrived, with coiffed black hair and pressed shirts, they promised justice, and the elderly villagers rose and returned to their village.

The police chief re-entered the dormitory complex. Still no suspects, she returned with their weapons—bamboo fighting sticks and metal pipes, mostly. Officials promised a response that night, but as the sun dipped below the skyscrapers in the west, the village waited and seethed.

Xian village with Guangzhou’s central business district towering behind.

Xian village is one of 138 “urban villages” in Guangzhou slated for redevelopment in the next five years. Across rapidly urbanizing China, hundreds of millions of farmers have lost their ancestral land in recent years, and the government aims to move another 250 million rural people to urban areas by 2020. The process is fraught with tension, especially as local governments profit by requisitioning land at low prices and flipping it to developers. “Luckily, we’re in the center of Guangzhou,” says one villager who has already signed away his home. “Officials can’t use the same force as they do in Henan or Hubei!”

Lu Yongquan disagrees. “How can the government be so dark?” he asks. He’s a small man, measuring 5-foot-4, perhaps a consequence of growing up during China’s chaotic and food-scarce Cultural Revolution years. In 1966, he was born in a single-story brick home next to the village’s sewage pond. Today, the home has been supplanted by a 5½-story building where his family of four lives on the upper floor and rents out rooms below to migrant workers from China’s inner provinces.

During Lu’s youth, fields and fishponds surrounded Xian village, and the Lu family planted rice and vegetables and raised livestock. When Lu was 19, the city of Guangzhou swallowed 1,207 mu (201 acres) of village land, and like most Xian families, the Lus focused on their pigs, building up a drove of almost 100. In the 1990s, the government came for the land that held the pigsties, and the family bought a truck and hauled dirt. They also added floors to their home and started renting rooms.

Migrant workers congregate on the rubble after work.

“Sometimes I sit here and wonder where I am,” Lu says as we sip beer on the ground floor of a towering skyscraper. “Where have all the fields gone?”

As the Lus lost their farmland and turned to renting rooms, the officials profited. Lu Suigeng, the village party secretary, who had been in power since 1980, partnered with a local government official named Cao Jianliao to sell off Xian village’s land at cut-rate prices and rake in kickbacks.

“My heart didn’t think there was anything to it,” Cao, wearing a white T-shirt with “be UNIQUE” written across the chest, says of taking his first RMB 2 million ($315,000) bribe in 1992. He is currently in detention. “It wasn’t cash. I thought if anything ever came of it, I could just wipe it away.” Soon, Cao courted his first of 11 mistresses, 21-year-old Kangyeh Lau, a student at South China University of Technology.

The officials evaded corruption allegations until December 2008, when the Xian Village Corporation published 1,500 copies of the Xian Village Record, a voluminous village history edited by Lu Suigeng. For the first time, Lu Suigeng revealed the details of Xian village’s 1999 transformation from a village to an economic collective: “The collective has fixed assets of RMB 380 million [$60 million], and 330 mu [55 acres] of village land and 130 mu [22 acres] of commercial land.” This meant that the village still owned nearby land, including a shopping mall across the street.

“Lu Suigeng wanted to be remembered. He’d held power for more than 30 years. He didn’t think anyone could touch him, that’s why he commissioned the project,” says 47-year-old Xian Yaojun, a wiry man with a long, youthful face, who was the leader of the village’s defense movement. “In fact it was the start of his fall.”

For the first time, villagers knew what they had, what they’d lost, and what they still stood to lose. “We had always thought this was all the government’s land; we didn’t know any of it belonged to us,” Xian explains. “If the village record had not been published, there would be no defense movement today.” Knowledge was power. Later, village rumors spread that Lu Suigeng was offering RMB 2,000 ($315) per copy to buy back the ill-advised village record—villagers delight to tell me that they’d never sell, no matter the price.

Soon thereafter, on Aug. 19, 2009, the first protests erupted on the steps of the Xian Village Committee’s office building. Villagers occupied the lobby, sat on the front steps, and stood in the courtyard. They gave speeches and chanted slogans: “Open the village accounts.” “Disclose village official’s salaries and assets.” “No more corruption.”

After a multiday sit-in, the villagers left the steps; the spark of the resistance movement was lit. One villager made hundreds of red baseball caps with the characters “Anti-Corruption” bolded on the crown.

It felt like the war of resistance against Japan

In 2010, with the Asian Games set to open in Guangzhou, city officials moved to flatten slum areas like Xian village. The tin-roofed stalls of the village’s farmers market, protected by a walled courtyard, were the first to be demolished.

At nightfall on Aug. 12, 2010, hundreds of helmeted officers filled in, taking up positions in front of the market’s courtyard wall. Across the street, tucked out of sight, riot police and excavators prepared. The two sides battled through the night; the villagers’ bamboo sticks were met with billy clubs, yet they held off the demolition team for hours, until at last fire trucks, water cannons, and chained German shepherds arrived.

“It felt like the war of resistance against Japan,” says one villager. At daybreak, they assessed the night’s carnage. In total, on both sides, 50 were wounded; 14 villagers were detained, including a 78-year-old man named Xian Zhangdao. “It was hard to even find any men, they’d all been detained, arrested, or fled,” recalls Lu Yongquan.

The District Propaganda Department released a statement: “On the night of August 12 to 13, in the process of demolishing the Xian Village Collective’s property, the land resources, city management and demolition teams met the violent obstruction of a small group of people, causing two demolition personnel to be hurt and damage to three excavators.”

In 2010, 84 villagers were arrested, state media reported. “Before the destruction of the farmers market, only 20 percent of villagers had agreed to leave. Afterward, everyone started signing the contract,” says Lu. “They thought they could not fight the government and win.”

August 19, 2014, Xian villagers feast on the fifth anniversary of the anti-corruption movement.

As the villagers’ resistance persisted, the development costs spiraled, and the redevelopment fund that included contributions by the village, district, and city governments dwindled. On Dec. 10, 2011, the Xian Village Corporation announced the well-connected Poly Real Estate Group would take over the project and allotted five days for public comment. On Dec. 14, after a large protest, government officials came to No. 30, and for nearly two hours, they debated with Xian Yaojun, the eruditely leader of the village’s defense movement.

When one official claimed they had received villagers’ approval for the outside investment, Xian left them with a threat: “If you did, show us the approval with our members’ committee signature. Once I see whose name is on the document, I will sue him, no matter who he is.”

Five days later, Xian rode his bike from the village, returning home to his apartment in his wife’s village. A minivan forced him to the side of the road. “Six men jumped out and asked if I wanted to go to dinner,” Xian recalls. “I said no, but they threw me and my bicycle into the van anyway.”

Inside a fancy restaurant on the Pearl River, the district Public Security Bureau chief and a Xian village neighborhood officer waited. When the meal came to an end, the public security official addressed Xian: “Tonight I’m going to invite you to have a soft meal, but if you continue to make trouble, next time I’ll invite you for a hard meal.”

A little past midnight on Dec. 26, the Xians heard banging on their front door. Male voices called out that they needed to check the electricity meter and the fire extinguishers. Xian’s wife opened the inner door and peered through the peephole. There was no one there. She turned on the lights, and the pounding intensified. “Xian Yaojun come out!” men shouted. Frightened, she opened a window, screamed “Help!” and dialed the police.

The group of plainclothesmen broke down the double doors and hauled away the family—husband, wife, and young child. Police charged Xian with soliciting a prostitute, which he, at first, denied. The suspected prostitute had been arrested on Dec. 22, and the alleged sexual act was supposed to have taken place 41 days prior to Xian’s arrest. The sum total of the evidence: the woman’s testimony (she later recanted) and phone records that showed the woman had called Xian on the day in question.

Lu Yongquan and other villagers play soccer on the pitch beside the demolished school house.

In China, charges for soliciting prostitutes can be handled by the Public Security Bureau, which can sentence defendants to two years in a “custody and education” center without trial. Xian received one year, 10 months.

At the custody and education center outside of Guangzhou, Xian was put in a two-story cell with 20 other men. A pin on his chest said “student,” which was his official status in the prison, though he never had any educational courses. Instead, the students did handiwork producing Christmas cards, bags, and toothpicks.

In April 2012, his wife sued the local police department, requesting the district court void the custody and education center determination and pay compensation for damages to their apartment.

Months later, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily published a detailed account of the trial. The alleged prostitute recanted her testimony. The police responded, “The woman put down in writing that she engaged in sexual relations for payment with Xian Yaojun, therefore, in her administrative review and lawsuit, she has not denied that the act of prostitution took place.” In regards to her claim that the police authored her statements and then forced her to sign, the police said, “that is only subjective opinion, and lacks evidence.”

Xian recanted his confession. The police responded, “At first he didn’t admit to any of the illegal activities; afterward he admitted to soliciting a prostitute.”

Asked for compensation for the broken doors in Xian’s apartment, the police said the apartment was owned by his wife’s father, and therefore Xian didn’t have the qualifications to request compensation. In addition, they said, his wife had dialed the police that night and screamed, “Help!” proving urgency was necessary to enter the apartment. On June 8, 2012, the local court ruled in favor of the police.

After they arrested Xian, we didn’t dare speak freely

“The shot hits the bird that pokes its head out,” says Lu Yongquan, quoting a Chinese proverb. “After they arrested Xian, we didn’t dare speak freely in No. 30.”

A handful of villagers were left on the village’s defense organizing team. To hold meetings, they dialed one another after dark and said, “Let’s drink tea.” The secret meetings were held in a hollowed-out building with four different escape routes. “It was very eerie—dark and dirty. We carried flashlights and climbed through other buildings to get there,” Lu remembers.

Two days after Xian’s arrest, construction of an 8-foot-high wall ringing the village commenced; the wall bore six gated checkpoints, all manned by Poly Real Estate Group security guards, to control the flow of traffic in and out of the village. ID checks became mandatory. Migrant workers, who were tenants, were barred from entering, denying villagers their primary source of income—rent. In January, 2012, thousands of migrant tenants left the village with no plan to return. Hundreds more Xian and Lu and Liang families decided to sign the contract and leave.

“After they built the wall, it was impossible for the migrant workers to come in,” says Lu Gao, whose name has been changed. “The migrants all moved out. Stores closed down. It was hard on all of us.”

Still, Lu Yongquan and the other organizers planned demonstrations at government offices to protest Xian’s arrest. They filed a court case against the Guangzhou Planning Commission. They petitioned the provincial government.

In December 2012, the Southern Metropolis Daily published the aforementioned account of Xian’s arrest and trial. Pressure on the police built. Xian agreed to drop his appeal against the police, and on Dec. 24, 2012, they were set free. Xian had spent almost a year in jail.

The perimeter wall with new skyscrapers rising in the background.

Five months later, Xian sat and smoked cigarette after cigarette as the events of May 23, 2013, unfolded. He dared not join the villagers blocking the road. That evening, Lu Yongquan and two female organizers visited beaten Lu Youtian in People’s Hospital No. 12. He was in a daze, Lu Yongquan recalls, with broken bones and ribs, but alive. The two older women who’d fainted lay in rooms down the hall.

When Lu Gao returned from driving his truck, he found villagers gathering around the village. “We all kept talking and talking, and the more we talked, the angrier we became, our blood boiled,” he says.

“Let’s turn this into something big,” one elder villager said.

“Only four checkpoints for the entire village!”

“Let’s finish the job we started; let’s tear down the wall,” another man yelled.

“Tonight the walls are here in front of me,” Lu Gao exclaimed, “and I will go out from right here!”

Nine o’clock came. Men gathered tools: a sledgehammer, shovels, and bamboo sticks, should the police or thugs come. A pack of men headed to a southern section of the wall that stood on Lu Gao’s doorstep. Lu Gao swung at the wall with the sledgehammer. The clang carried up to my apartment. The men cut a small hole into the wall. Progress was slow.

In my apartment, I heard bellowed counting in Cantonese, “Yuht, yee, sahm, say, mmm, yhut, tchut, bot, gow, sup,” and then a boom. A large section of the wall had toppled over.

“Excitement rose up within us,” says Lu Gao. “When the wall fell to the ground, and went boom, all our energy exploded.”

The pack of villagers moved east and took up positions on the next length of wall. Lu Yongquan returned from the hospital and joined. Again, they counted, “Yuht, yee, sahm … ” and heaved; the wall wobbled and fell. A roar ripped through the crowd. Newcomers joined up. They moved further east. Forty men abreast lined the next length; a hundred more villagers looked on.

“Push, Pushh, Pushhh,” they screamed, then counted again.

As the villagers pushed, the section tipped, came loose from its base, and swayed forward, but it did not topple; instead, it rocked back into the men like a pendulum. They let it come, held it, and as it rocked forward, pressed. Boom. Cinder blocks scattered; the crowd let out another roar.

They’d unhinged a good 100-yard length of the southern wall by the time SWAT vans flashed onto the scene. Villagers scattered back into the village.

“The police didn’t follow us into the village; they stayed outside the wall,” Lu Yongquan remembers. “The police thought we’d finished.”

The villagers gathered. “Are we pushing or not?” someone asked.

“Push, push, push,” the men yelled. The pack streamed north, through the narrow alleys, and in minutes felled a length of the northern wall.

The riot police followed, slowly. Lines of helmets and shields jogged up the village’s western length and then turned east. When they finally caught the villagers, the northern wall had collapsed, and a section of the eastern wall lay as rubble. Villagers had rendered the developer’s checkpoints toothless and returned to No. 30, where all were giddy. Eventually, Lu Yongquan returned home where he lay in bed for hours, too excited to sleep.

Mural painted on a demolished home beside the sewage pond.

A thousand miles to the north, in Beijing, the wheels of politics turned. Xi Jinping, the newly installed president, launched an all-encompassing corruption crackdown.

Lu believes the events of May 23, 2013, grabbed the higher-up officials’ attention. “Poly’s guards almost beat a villager to death. They’d gone too far. Afterward, everything changed.”

After 33 years ruling over his private fiefdom, Lu Suigeng fled abroad to Australia, or perhaps America—no one can say for sure. Villagers like to say he collected RMB 1 billion ($157 million) in bribes, though that too is unknown.

In August 2013, village officials were called to a nearby city for a meeting; all at once the seven were detained. On Aug. 20, 2013, the Guangzhou Discipline Commission announced the investigation. “Basically, it’s a group suspected of impropriety, their actions are regrettable,” a spokesperson said.

Euphoria swept through the village. Villagers snatched up copies of the Guangzhou Daily to read and reread the news. Strings of firecrackers burst. Roaming groups of villagers beat gongs and chimed symbols, for days on end.

“After the village officials were arrested, we knew the pressure would come to an end,” Lu Yongquan says. He started sleeping through the night. “I was finally able to breathe,” Lu Gao says.

An election for a new slate of village representatives was set for November, 2013. Immediately, fissures opened among the left-behind villagers. Would they participate? Would the election be fair?

The two organizers, Lu Yongquan and Xian Yaojun, just one year apart in age, came to an impasse. Lu believed the election could be fair, or at least, it merited a try. Xian felt otherwise.

“There were too many corrupt officials still in power, controlling the process; the vote could not be fair,” he says. To avoid a schism, Lu capitulated, and the left-behind families boycotted the vote. Not all fell into line, though, and about 10 left-behind villagers were elected representatives.

“If we’d all participated in the election,” Lu explains with a sigh of regret, “I could perhaps have made it onto the corporation board or village committee. We’ll only be able to effect change if we get people elected.”

Then in December 2013, Cao, having risen to deputy mayor of Guangzhou in the intermittent years, was detained. Six months later, the Guangdong Province Discipline Commission released a video of Cao’s confession. He’s suspected of accepting more than RMB 300 million ($47 million) in bribes, but has yet to stand trial.

Village children play on the rubble of demolished homes.

A year later, the village officials were tried. By way of defense, Lu Suigeng’s uncle said village officials all over take the red envelopes developers give out at the holidays. The judge ruled that since Xian village was incorporated as an enterprise, the officials could not be charged with public corruption. Still, Lu Suigeng’s nephew was sentenced to four years in jail. Other village officials received lesser jail terms and probation.

Today, a couple of hundred left-behind Xian, Lu, and Liang families remain in their half-demolished village. Most agree they will never sign with Poly Real Estate Group—they don’t trust the developer will deliver on its promises. Yet, they are divided: A portion, led by Lu Yongquan, want to work with the reformed Xian Village Corporation, and a group, led by Xian, remain opposed.

Lu recently received an appointment managing the village’s properties. He now wears slacks and a collared shirt and receives text messages about overflowing trashcans. Lu Qizhu, a distant cousin of Lu Yongquan’s, accepted a position as a village security guard. He didn’t anticipate the backlash his blue uniform would bring. “After I became a guard, they said I’d gone over to the other side,” he tells me. “They say I’m working with them. They say we no longer have the same goals.”

“When you work for them, they have control over you,” says Xian, who disputes the new positions have any real power. “He who has a mind to beat his dog will easily find a stick.”

Eventually, the locked-up ancestral temples, long the heart of village social life, reopened. South Lu Hall stands just down the alley from No. 30, and now, in the late afternoons, villagers like Lu, who want to work within the system, congregate there. Xian remains in the same wooden chair, back to the wall, facing his half-demolished village and a new garden that villagers have planted on the rubble.