Lu Ye, a top Party chief in Luojiang county, Sichuan province, still remembers a quarrel he had with local farmers earlier this year. They disagreed over whether additional walls should be built inside the courtyards in a new village called Daowan.
The new houses were nearly finished and the farmers were looking forward to moving in and starting new tourism businesses.
When we met in September, Lu told me he'd been very involved in the new village's development as a tourist resort. He had personally persuaded a developer to invest in the project and had overseen the village's neo-classical design, modeled after the architecture at the foot of the Huangshan (Yellow) mountains in Anhui province.
A horizontal wooden tablet hanging under the eaves of the main conference hall in the village bears two Chinese characters, Dao Wan, in Lu's stylish calligraphy.
Lu told the farmers the walls would help keep wealth in the house, according to traditional Chinese feng shui.
"I almost lost my temper," he recalled. "I was angry because the farmers wouldn't take my advice, after all I had done."
But Lu held his temper, accepting that the decision should be made by a vote of the village committee.
"It was important to follow standard procedure and let the farmers make their own decision," Lu told me. "No one, including the top county Party chief, has the right to interfere."
He later learned that the farmers opposing the idea feared that the outside walls would prevent them from parking their motorcycles inside the courtyards.
After much discussion and a vote, the villagers agreed to build the walls, but insisted that they be designed so as to allow the farmers to push their motorcycles into the courtyards.
The incident only strengthened Lu's belief that no single person, not even a top county chief like himself, should make such decisions.
Lu is to be applauded for his recognition that the farmers had the right to make their own decisions. Many other officials still seem to believe that they are gods and that people should gratefully await their orders.
Often these officials ignore the law and use brutal methods to force people out of their homes. In one case, they tore down a residential building in the middle of the night while the homeowners were still asleep.
No wonder that at a lecture on Sunday in Wanzai county, Jiangxi province, Professor Yu Jianrong of the Rural Development Research Institute of China's Academy of Social Sciences urged some 700 local administrators and Party chiefs not to tear down common people's homes.
To Yu's surprise and anger, one of the officials retorted during the lunch break that Yu and other intellectuals would go hungry if officials "didn't just do it" (pull down people's houses). This official may be too indulgent in the race to urbanization to be aware of the danger ahead.
China is on the fast track towards urbanization. During my trips to Hainan and Sichuan provinces, and the Guangxi Zhuang and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions, I've seen with my own eyes how small county towns have expanded into cities with new office and apartment buildings as well as museums, department stores, and fancy hotels.
When cities expand, rural people see their lives transformed. In Luojiang, Yin Baohua and his family of five left their old rammed earth house behind and moved into a new two-story house in Daowan. Yin was assigned his house through a village lottery and has opened a restaurant in the ground floor sitting room, where he has 20 tables and can serve 160 tourists at once.
Like Professor Yu and many others, I abhor the behavior of officials who trample upon the basic rights of the common people. New China was founded on the backs of common people who expected that the People's Republic would not only protect them from hunger and cold but also ensure their basic rights to subsistence and a better future.
Ordinary Chinese, from farmers to common workers to the hundreds of millions of migrant workers, have made tremendous sacrifices to help China become the second largest economy in the world.
It is time that the country placed the protection of people's rights at the top of its development agenda. People should have the right to choose whether, where, and when they want to move. As Party chief Lu of Luojiang said, "We have to place the issues in their hands. We must let farmers determine their own affairs and protect their own rights and interests."
Administrative orders and forced eviction will only create distrust, instability and disharmony.
In Professor Yu's words, "Pulling down (people's houses) is pulling the future of the country apart."
The author is Assistant Editor-in-Chief of China Daily. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.