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China's Land Grabs Raise Specter of Popular Unrest

Peasants Resist Developers, Local Officials

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page A01

FUZHOU, China -- A half-dozen policemen burst into Lin Zhengxu's home and grabbed him as he awoke from an afternoon nap. After beating and kicking him, family and neighbors recalled, the policemen immobilized Lin's arms by pulling his shirt halfway over his head. Then they tried to carry him off to jail.

But the police had not counted on Lin's friends and neighbors. After years of fighting back against the government's seizure of their rice paddies and vegetable plots, they fought to help the man leading their battle. Neighbors rushed the policemen, witnesses recounted, yanked Lin away and spirited him into hiding. Within three days of the police raid, family members said, Lin had made his way to Beijing, nearly 1,000 miles north of this steamy city on the East China Sea.

Chen Li, 48, displays documents in which the Chinese government said her house in the southern city of Guangzhou would be demolished. (Annie Wang For The Washington Post)

For Lin, the champion of Shishan village on Fuzhou's northwestern outskirts, the escape was a rare victory during years of campaigning against what farmers here say was an illegal land grab by local Communist Party officials and government authorities. Using courts, petitions and appeals to officials at all levels, Shishan's peasants have fought in vain for a decade to get compensation for 200 acres of rich farmland they maintain was unfairly confiscated by local authorities and sold for development.

"It's corruption," declared Huang Jinchun, 36, whose family lost a third of an acre in Shishan and, he said in an interview, has yet to receive a penny's worth of compensation. "They just took our land and put the money into their pockets."

The 8,000 people of Shishan have waged one of the longest fights in China over such confiscations. But their struggle has found echoes all over Fuzhou, the surrounding Fujian province and the country. As China's headlong development pits farmers against developers allied with local officials, the peasants and other rural landowners who still make up 60 percent of China's 1.3 billion people increasingly have tried to resist.

The Construction Ministry said it received three times as many complaints in the first quarter of this year as in the same period last year. By the end of June, Deputy Minister Fu Wenjia told the Beijing News that 4,000 groups and more than 18,600 individuals had lodged petitions over allegedly illicit land transfers.

Farmers have also taken their complaints to the street. Hundreds lined up bicycles and rickshaws to block traffic in a Beijing suburb on Aug. 20, protesting the seizure of land by a state-owned development company building high-end villas for foreigners and wealthy Chinese seeking to escape the capital's downtown pollution.

In a country where peasants have traditionally played a large role and helped propel the Communist Party to power, the farmers' cause has found wide support in the central government, at least according to official declarations.

The Ministry of Land and Resources said it disciplined officials involved in about 168,000 illegal land deals last year. The party's Central Committee announced last month after a four-day meeting that it had expelled the former land and resources minister, Tian Fenghsan, after a finding by the party that he took $600,000 in bribes. Premier Wen Jiabao, in his annual report in March, vowed to "resolutely put an end to illegal acquisition and use of farmland."

An Unbalanced Fight

As Lin's rescue demonstrated, however, resistance to land grabs in China's 34 provinces has sometimes veered into violence, raising the specter of popular rural unrest that has haunted China's rulers throughout history.

Farmers pushed from their land on an island in the Pearl River in southern China have repeatedly clashed with Guangzhou police in recent months. The New York-based organization Human Rights in China reported Sept. 1 that 15 people were injured in a clash Aug. 1 at a factory in the Fuzhou suburb of Cangshan between police and protesters who said their property had been illegally seized.

"The situation of peasants being deprived of their land is very serious in China," said Li Baiguang, director of the Beijing Qimin Research Center. Li, who has studied land seizures in Fujian and other rural provinces, added, "If the interests of the peasants cannot be properly protected and the conflicts cannot be settled, Chinese society might suffer from turbulence."

It is an uneven battle. Party and government officials at the village, county, township and provincial levels use their power to exploit provisions in Chinese law that allow land confiscation in the name of the public interest. They retain a monopoly on deciding the public interest and the compensation.

The China Daily newspaper cited official estimates that nearly 10,000 square miles of farmland were transformed by development in 2003. Rice paddies became factories. Cabbage patches became apartment compounds. Wheat fields became golf courses.

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