Chinese Officials Retreat in Farmland Dispute

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 22, 2005

BEIJING, July 21 -- Government officials in a rural area near Beijing have backed off plans to seize land in a dispute with local farmers that resulted in a violent confrontation last month, state media reported Thursday. The clash, involving hundreds of armed thugs, left six villagers dead, and part of it was captured on video and broadcast around the world.

The official New China News Agency announced the government's about-face, saying authorities in Hebei province had decided to give up plans to take the farmland from the residents of Shengyou village, about 100 miles southwest of Beijing, after concluding that local officials had not paid the villagers proper compensation.

Reached by phone, an official in the city of Dingzhou, which oversees the village, confirmed the report.

The reversal comes more than a month after about 300 men wielding shotguns, clubs and pipes attacked a group of farmers who had pitched tents on the disputed parcel of land and were resisting demands to surrender it to a government-owned power plant. Six villagers were shot or stabbed to death and as many as 100 were injured in the June 11 incident.

The clash was among the deadliest known to have occurred in rural China in recent years and quickly emerged as a symbol of the Communist Party's inability to deal with a growing problem in the countryside: the seizure of farmland by local officials to build roads, dams, factories and other projects, often for personal profit. Peasants have complained about receiving little or no compensation for their confiscated plots and have staged hundreds of demonstrations over the issue.

The incident in Shengyou was unusual because one of the farmers managed to record a portion of the clash before the assailants smashed his digital video camera and broke his arm. The footage showed a mob of men in combat fatigues storming the farmers' camp, shouting, "Kill!" and "Attack!" and swinging metal pipes fitted with sharp hooks on the end. A small explosion could be seen in the chaos and several gunshots could be heard.

The video, which was given to The Washington Post by a farmer and first broadcast on the Post's Web site, never aired on government-controlled television in China. But photos taken from it were published in the Beijing News, the state tabloid that first reported the clash, and on China's most popular Internet sites.

After the incident was reported, local officials insisted they would push ahead with plans to seize the 67 acres of disputed land to build a facility for storing coal ash from a state-owned power plant nearby. But the authorities also fired the party chief and mayor of Dingzhou, and a week later, police began making arrests, portraying a contractor hired by the state to build the ash facility as the organizer behind the attack on the farmers.

Earlier this month, police said 248 suspects had been detained in the case. State media reported that police were also holding the Dingzhou party chief and one of his subordinates on criminal charges, but refrained from saying whether the two had approved or were involved in the attack. "Regardless of what crimes are involved, they will be investigated fully and dealt with severely according to the facts and the law," police were quoted as saying.

But a senior Dingzhou official was also quoted by state media as accusing villagers of breaking the law and disrupting economic development by refusing for more than a year to surrender the disputed land. He warned that some residents would be "held legally responsible for leading the way and causing trouble."

Local authorities have stopped and turned away foreign journalists who have attempted to visit Shengyou in recent weeks. One reporter said last week she was strip-searched by police after being caught leaving the village.

Reached by phone, a relative of Niu Zhanzong, 50, the farmer who filmed the melee, said Niu had been hospitalized with a heart condition and placed under police surveillance. Other residents expressed concern about official reprisals and declined to be interviewed.

But several villagers said Dingzhou's new party chief announced the government's decision to give up its claim to the land at a public meeting on Wednesday. They said he also promised $25,000 payments to each of the families of the six men killed in the attack.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company