Bulldozed by Growth, Stonewalled by Government

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 26, 2006

AOSHI, China -- On a recent day in this southern Chinese village, an elderly peasant wearing a conical straw hat hoed fitfully at the dirt in a vacant lot. Only 90 feet to the east, but a world away, the winners in China's new economy pulled into a shiny new Honda dealership.

Not long ago, the two-acre lot where the cars are sold -- under a proud red tower with "Honda" emblazoned on it -- was lush with rice paddies, truck farms and peanut plots. But times have changed. The fields of Aoshi and surrounding hamlets have been swallowed up by economic development unfurling at breakneck speed across the plains and hills here in Guangdong province, about 175 miles northwest of Hong Kong.

Like the stooped peasant working the soil, many farmers here have been reduced to tilling vacant strips along the borders of new buildings and construction sites, raising crops on ground that is no longer legally theirs to work. Their land, on the edge of fast-growing Yunfu city, has been marked for development, and they have been marked for obsolescence.

"We can't afford to buy those cars," a farmer said, looking at the Honda dealership as if it were in a foreign country. "The only ones buying them are government officials."

Across China, millions of farmers in thousands of villages have met similar fates, pushed aside by the need for land to build factories, apartments, hospitals and roads in a country enjoying more than 9 percent annual growth. The boom has led to a better life for most of the 1.3 billion Chinese, often including farmers. But it has come at the price of tearing peasants from their roots and their livelihood, leaving them no option but to become migrant workers in factories far from home.

"We don't have our land anymore, so where do we go?" said a young farmer whose family plot in Aoshi was bulldozed to make way for a fire station.

Without an independent court system and unschooled in the ways of bureaucracy, the farmers fend for themselves against frequently corrupt local Communist Party officials with broad authority and powerful economic incentive to confiscate farmland to sell to developers. In recent years, the result increasingly has been rage and violent protest. Stability in the countryside has become a major worry for President Hu Jintao's government, leading Hu to launch an intense campaign for improving life in the countryside.

In Aoshi and the adjacent villages of Xiangyang, Baimianshi and Shangxiangwei, the price of progress was made clear when officials from Yunfu city showed up one day a year and a half ago and told farmers to quickly harvest as many fruits and vegetables as they could. Heavy equipment arrived 90 minutes later and was in use until nightfall, villagers recalled, destroying rice paddies, truck gardens and peanut plots that had provided them with a livelihood for generations untold.

Protests Put Down

The farmers in Aoshi, on Yunfu's northern edge, protested noisily when the bulldozers came. Hundreds of policemen quickly put down the demonstration. Ten farmers said they were arrested -- a pattern that would be repeated during protests over the next year.

The bulldozers and front-end loaders kept at it for 10 days, until about 36 acres had been scraped bare for construction. Although not a large amount of land by U.S. standards, farmers supporting 144 families, comprising most of the four villages' 800 residents, had been put out of work, their leaders said.

Within two weeks, the farmers had organized and gone to Yunfu's Land and Resources Administration to complain. Yunfu's compensation offer, a one-time payment averaging $875 per landholding villager, was inadequate, they said. Instead, they insisted on a lifetime pension of $44 a month per villager. Officials repeatedly told them everything had been carried out according to law.

They also turned to the courts. But a court official told them nothing could be done. "Yunfu is just too corrupt," the official told them. They went to see provincial authorities in Guangzhou, who also rejected their pleas.

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