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China's Land Grabs Raise Specter of Popular Unrest

The land lost by farmers around Qingkou, a formerly rural town on Fuzhou's southern edge, became a stretch of factories making cars and car parts. A dun-colored stone wall has been erected to close in acre upon acre of gleaming new plants and row upon row of newly produced delivery vans in what once was known as the "home town of vegetables."

Officials from Minhou County, which encompasses Qingkou, promised when they confiscated the land in 1998 that farmers would receive between $4,000 and $5,000 each for their tiny plots and that many would find good jobs in the factories, local peasant activists said.

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)

But the most anyone received was $150, they said. And because of a struggle over compensation that had become bitter by the time the factories opened, local peasants seeking jobs said they were passed over in favor of more compliant migrant workers.

Xiao Xiangjin, a farmer and correspondent for China Reform magazine, took up the peasants' cause as soon as it became clear they would not be given the compensation they were promised. He petitioned the courts. He petitioned the county government. He petitioned the provincial party leadership. According to his family, he also went to Beijing and petitioned whomever he could get to listen.

Demolished Dreams

Perhaps most irritating to local officials, he claimed that much of the compensation money that was never paid to the peasants was invested in the new factories by local officials for their own profit.

The reaction was not long in coming. Police came to arrest Xiao two years ago as he slept at 1 a.m., family members recalled. He sneaked out the back and jumped over a wall to escape, they said, hiding for several months until official anger died down.

But authorities still had their eyes on him. He was searched and questioned at Fuzhou International Airport last April as he left for Beijing. The day after he returned, April 5, Xiao was arrested on his way to work and sent to a labor camp for political reeducation, his family said. Twenty days after the arrest, the family received an official notice saying he had been sentenced to a year because he had entertained prostitutes four times in his home and office at Qingkou.

A colleague of Xiao's who sometimes accompanied him to Beijing, Wu Zhong Kai, was also arrested in July, neighbors said. As a result, the protest movement has been left leaderless and peasants appear cowed for the moment.

Xiao's family and neighbors were interviewed outside their town and declined to allow their names to be published for fear of retribution. "Without a leader, what can we do?" one of them asked.

Officials in Shishan and Qingkou, contacted by telephone, said they did not know enough about the land seizures to comment.

But a low-level Communist Party cadre caused a national sensation nearly two months ago by publishing an open letter accusing his superiors of blocking attempts to investigate similar land seizures in another suburb of Fuzhou. Within days, the letter was pulled from Web sites and the government-controlled press was ordered to stop reporting on it. The Fuzhou government said the official, Huang Jingao, had violated party rules. It ordered him to proceed with a self-examination of his errors, which a declaration said were caused by "individualism."

Individualism was a goal of the well-to-do professionals who, in the 1990s, built about 165 luxury houses on Xiao Guwei, an island in the Pearl River where it flows through booming Guangzhou 300 miles southwest of here. No two houses were the same, and most enjoyed serene views of the murky river that belied their nearness to the busy city center.

"It used to be so pretty," said Xie Rongfu, 43, a computer whiz who built a five-bedroom home overlooking the Pearl. "From a boat, you could see cows and goats. That natural beauty is why I bought the land to build a house."

Since then, Guangdong province's party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, endorsed Xiao Guwei as the site for his signature project: a $2.4 billion campus for Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to be called University Town. To make way for dormitories and classrooms, Xie's home and most of the others like it have been condemned. The island is now dotted not only with new buildings, but also with the debris of demolished dream homes.

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