ANSHAN, China More than three years later, Li Lan still breaks down as she describes how her daughter was killed, an innocent victim of warfare between two villages that the local police made no effort to control.
The daughter, a 23-year-old teacher, was at home with her husband and in-laws. They were huddling for safety as two nearby villages in one of the more startling examples of lawlessness afflicting parts of the Chinese countryside traded ferocious barrages with homemade cannons.
A schoolboy fight had rekindled an old clan enmity, and hot words led to open preparations for battle. The villagers built earthen ramparts and gun emplacements. They fashioned six-foot cannons from empty gas cylinders and cantaloupe-size projectiles from scrap metal.
Frightened neighbors repeatedly called on the police to head off the looming catastrophe, but for months the Lanshan County authorities did nothing, Ms. Li recalled. Finally the villages began pummeling each other with their crude weapons, shooting hundreds of cannonballs across a half-mile of rice paddies in two daylong battles, one in December 1998 and the second the next month.
Some 12 people were killed and 60 homes destroyed, local residents said.
A truce was called only after a misaimed volley hit the wrong village, killing four more including her daughter.
"It's just so pitiful," Ms. Li sobbed during a recent tour of the battlegrounds, fingering a tattered photograph of her girl. "She was eight months pregnant."
The incident, while extreme, is indicative of the widespread lawlessness that has grown in many of China's towns and villages in the last two decades as once stringent Maoist discipline has withered, and often been replaced by an economic free-for-all that is devoid of public cohesion or shared ideals.
Today even senior Beijing leaders and the official news media have begun to acknowledge the problem, repeatedly condemning cowed and corrupt police departments that function as "protective umbrellas" for criminal gangs.
But more than that, official crime and lawlessness in the countryside is coming to light now because so many more victims, like Ms. Li, are trying to speak out.
Outrage over what she sees as official neglect and indifference has transformed Ms. Li, 47, an illiterate rice farmer who admires Mao who died in 1976 for his strictness, into a passionate crusader for the rule of law.
"So many people died in this fighting and no one has taken responsibility," she said. "Instead the officials get promotions and I'm the one who's been sent to jail two times." The arrests were for "disturbing social order."
When Ms. Li and her husband demanded explanations for the evident police neglect they got no answers, but they found many allies in Lanshan County, a hilly region of rice paddies and tobacco plots that survives off income from migrant work on the booming coast.
The complaints are varied, but they all revolve around the lack of security and honest law enforcement.
The problems appear to be most prevalent in the densely populated backwaters of central and southern China, where might makes right, whether wielded by traditional clan chiefs, by cabals of corrupt police, Communist Party satraps and gangsters or, as in this sorry corner of Hunan Province, by all of the above.
"In the contemporary Chinese countryside, traditional moral constraints no longer hold, and clan organizations and local criminal forces have come to fill the vacuum of power and authority," said He Qinglian, an economist, author and social critic, in an essay on spreading rural lawlessness.
In Lanshan County, not only can the police look the other way during a cannon battle, afraid to get involved or to challenge certain village powers, but senior police and other county officials have been implicated in heroin dealing and counterfeiting. A senior officer is known to gangsters as Big Daddy, and bribery and cronyism have demonstrably warped the priorities of the police and courts.
Protesting the lack of security and fairness, a remarkable 12,000 residents of the county have risked reprisals by putting their names and fingerprints on a petition calling for dismissal of corrupt police and Communist Party officials.
"The people of Lanshan yearn to see a clear sky," says their statement, using a metaphor for clean government. "We yearn to breath in clean, fresh air and to live with our hearts at ease." The petition, still collecting more names through door-to-door canvassing, has been sent to various provincial and national authorities with no response.
The institutional rot is increasingly recognized by Chinese researchers and even senior Beijing officials as a major source of public anger and a threat to the central government's programs.
Studying 40 villages in southern Hunan, near Lanshan, that he described as "out of control," a political scientist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently concluded that the criminal infiltration of the police and the government in the region was pervasive and "a massive social threat."
"Township leaders tolerate or even abet the takeover of `lawful government powers' by criminal forces," wrote the scholar, Yu Jianrong, in a report that is circulating on the Internet here.
A current official in Lanshan County who has close contact with law enforcement units said: "The police aren't there to protect people and provide security. They're out for personal gain.
"If the police took on a problem like that clan war, they'd also have to admit that public safety in Lanshan is terrible. That would damage their chances for promotion and more power."
More than 50 murder cases in the county in the last decade have been left essentially uninvestigated, the official said, usually because someone with money or influence has headed off embarrassing inquiries. In 22 cases, he said, relatives are keeping the corpses in freezers, trying to preserve potential evidence for a brighter day.
Last month in nearby Dongan County, also in Hunan, the deputy police chief, political leaders and a local gangster were given prison terms for colluding in bribery, fraud, gambling, selling of firearms and other offenses. But such convictions are the exception.
Here in Lanshan County, Ms. Li and 17 other residents decided to travel to Beijing in early May in their latest futile attempt to gain official attention and, they hoped, a restoration of peace and law.
For some of the villagers it was their fourth or fifth trip to the capital, but each time, cautious bureaucrats have told them to go home and wait. Some villagers who tried to pass out leaflets in Tiananmen Square were detained and put on the train back to Hunan.
Wang Liuying, 53, was another petitioner from Lanshan. She shares with Ms. Li the deep copper face of one who works in the sun. In Beijing she wore a shirt boldly painted with charges of a cover-up in the murder of her husband, an army veteran and middle-rank police officer who was beaten to death by a construction crew in 1990 when he tried to collect unpaid taxes.
The tax-delinquent contractor whose men, witnesses say, pounded Ms. Wang's husband with iron bars is related to a party kingpin in the county and is in thick with senior police officials. When officers brought home her husband's battered body, Ms. Wang said, they made the incredible claim that he had died of a stroke, and they refused to investigate further.
"In our county lots of things like this happen," Ms. Wang said of her legal impasse, quivering with rage. "If anyone complains, they're beaten and they lose their jobs."
Ms. Li, Ms. Wang and their growing circle of irate and outspoken friends, from villages all over their county of 346,000 people, know they are risking jail or other reprisals, but many have become fearless with time.
"If we don't keep on fighting we'll have nowhere left to stand," Ms. Li said. "The corrupt officials and the crime gangs will do whatever they want with us."
In the formerly warring villages, the cannons have reportedly been destroyed and the hilltops where the big guns stood among rice fields are overgrown.
An unfriendly truce is in effect between the long hostile Cheng and Fang clans, with no mixing, locals say.
But the 3,000-strong Cheng village in particular, neighbors say, is hardly tamed: the county police, family planning agents and other enforcers of the law do not dare to enter, and the village keeps its own rules and order.