Officials Held Hostage By Farmers in China

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 10, 2006

BEIJING, Nov. 9 -- Hundreds of enraged farmers in southern China surrounded a granary and for nearly 24 hours held hostage dozens of officials and investors gathered inside, villagers said Thursday, in the latest sign of rural unrest in the region.

The officials and investors had gathered to mark the opening of the granary, which farmers said had been built on seized land for which they received inadequate compensation. Riot police, who arrived Wednesday evening and stood by through the night, forced their way into the granary and allowed the hostages to leave early Thursday afternoon, villagers said.

The incident, in Guangdong province's Sanzhou village, was the latest in a two-year string of such occurrences in rural China, often brought on by discontent among farmers over the seizure of fields by local officials, who then sell the land for development. The issue is particularly acute in Guangdong, where swift urban growth has put increasing pressure on farmland in the Pearl River Delta just north of Hong Kong.

The number of violent incidents nationwide climbed steadily in 2004 and 2005, generating concern in President Hu Jintao's government. In response, the government canceled traditional agricultural taxes and lavished heavy spending on rural areas. The number of violent protests has declined by 22 percent in the first nine months of 2006, to 17,900, according to Deputy Public Security Minister Liu Jinguo.

Sanzhou lies in the fertile delta about 15 miles south of Guangzhou, the sprawling capital of Guangdong province. Villagers reached by telephone said the granary was built on seized farmland with money invested by local businessmen and overseas Chinese from several Asian and European countries.

The amount investors paid for the land was significantly higher than the compensation farmers received, they complained. As has frequently been the case, villagers expressed suspicion that corrupt local officials pocketed at least part of the difference. Local officials also have often used profits on such transactions to bolster village, county and township budgets, a practice denounced recently by Premier Wen Jiabao.

Local officials declined to comment on the incident or its causes, referring questions to the provincial propaganda department in Guangzhou. An official there said he knew nothing about it.

The current local government and Communist Party leadership are not to blame, one villager said, because the deal was concluded under the former administration. "It was because the previous officials were corrupt that this happened," she said, speaking on condition that her name not be published for fear of retribution.

The Sanzhou villagers said that as far as they knew, no one was injured when police pushed their way into the building to release those trapped inside overnight. Guangzhou authorities have been particularly careful about the use of violence since last December, when police opened fire on protesters at Dongzhou, another village in the province, and killed a number of people.

In a separate incident over a land dispute, this one in Taigou village in Jiangsu province about 200 miles north of Shanghai, three farmers were seriously beaten and a number of others more lightly injured in a clash with security forces wielding truncheons, according to the farmers.

"They weren't policemen, but I think they were security people who worked for the government," said Shi Kai, 44, one of those involved in the fracas on Saturday.

Shi, who fled to Beijing, said he and about 70 others were set upon as they drove three-wheeled tractors toward the county seat to complain about the confiscation of communally owned land. Several villagers were hospitalized, including one who had seven stitches to close a wound in his head, Shi said.

The village leadership, including the Communist Party secretary and the mayor, took control of the land, sold some of it and rented the rest, Shi alleged. He said villagers became angered when they heard that authorities planned to build a highway near the village but that the villagers would not share in the compensation because the land was no longer registered to them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company