In Face of Rural Unrest, China Rolls Out Reforms

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 28, 2006

BEIJING, Jan. 27 -- Faced with steadily increasing peasant unrest, the Communist Party has decreed extensive changes to improve the lot of farmers and stop rapid economic development from encroaching on their land.

The party declared rural reform a major goal of its new five-year economic program, which began this month. The government has also announced the abolition of an agricultural tax that is thousands of years old, free public school education for peasant children and new rural insurance to subsidize medical care for those among the country's 800 million farmers who cannot afford to see doctors.

The swift sequence of decisions reflected the depth of concern in the party and government as farmers outraged by land grabs and pollution increasingly rise up in violent protests that senior officials have said pose a threat to stability and continued economic growth. The Public Security Ministry estimated the number of riots and demonstrations at 87,000 during 2005, up more than 6 percent from 2004 and quadruple what it was a decade ago.

The violence is in part a reaction to an economic boom that has produced 9 percent annual growth in China but benefited mainly city dwellers.

Some Chinese officials have suggested strong repression is the best response. Wu Shuangzhan, commander of the paramilitary People's Armed Police, and Sui Mingtai, the force's political commissar, wrote a joint article early this month urging stepped-up training and preparation to put down the unrest. But the senior leadership, while not repudiating use of force, has emphasized solving farmers' underlying problems as the long-term solution.

Premier Wen Jiabao last month warned senior rural bureaucrats against making "a historical mistake" by failing to protect farmers and their lands, which he predicted would lead to more violence. In particular, he cautioned, towns should not violate the law in seizing land nor sell confiscated fields to businesses as a way to raise public funds.

"This is a key issue that affects the stability of the countryside and the society, and it must be clearly recognized by all levels of government and party committees," he said, according to a text of his speech published last week by the party's official People's Daily.

President Hu Jintao drove home the message Friday in an address to the Politburo, urging resolution of the "major contradictions and problems we are faced with" in the countryside. "If we cannot succeed in developing agriculture and rural areas while helping farmers improve their lives markedly, we will fail to reach the goal of building a comparatively prosperous society," he said, according to the official New China News Agency.

But the party's efforts to better manage tension between urban growth and squeezed farmlands repeatedly have faltered in the hybrid of socialism and capitalism that has developed here in 30 years of economic liberalization. In the new era, the Communist Party's main ideology has become growth, creating a natural and often corrupt alliance between officials and businessmen that leaves farmers with no advocate.

As a result, some Chinese analysts have pointed out, a genuine determination to protect farmers and their fields would require unflinching prosecution of city, county and village officials involved in illegal land confiscations and sales. There has been no sign that Wen and Hu have that in mind. In his speech, which was hailed as an unusually frank discussion of China's rural problems, Wen did not refer to the role of corruption in land confiscations, although farmers routinely cite it as a reason for their violent protests.

Elsewhere as well, party solidarity seems to have outweighed the desire to improve administration of the countryside. Last month, for example, a county party secretary who in August 2004 decried systemic corruption in Zhejiang province land dealings was sentenced to life in prison; on Tuesday, a journalist friend who helped him write his denunciation was sentenced to three years.

After a string of peasant riots, including one in which People's Armed Police opened fire and killed a number of people, the Guangdong provincial party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, last month issued what he called "three stern directives" threatening local officials with firing if they improperly seized fields. After another riot this month, he issued his warning again. But no firings have been announced.

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