Farmers Rise In Challenge To Chinese Land Policy

A meeting of farmers Dec. 19 in Changchunling initiated a movement that has spread across China, challenging the policy of collective land ownership.
A meeting of farmers Dec. 19 in Changchunling initiated a movement that has spread across China, challenging the policy of collective land ownership. (Special To The Washington Post)
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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 14, 2008

CHANGCHUNLING, China -- About 1,000 farmers gathered in the village meeting hall here at 8 a.m. on Dec. 19 and proclaimed what amounted to a revolt against China's communist land-ownership system.

The broad, flat fields surrounding Changchunling belong to the farmers who work them, they declared, and not to the local government. The farmers then began dividing up the village's collective holdings, with the goal of making each family the owner of a private plot.

"There is no justification for taking the land away from the farmers," said one of the participating peasants.

The redistribution exercise at Changchunling was not an isolated incident. Rather, it marked what appears to be the start of a backlash against China's system of collective land ownership in rural areas.

The uprising began here in the frigid, snow-covered soybean fields around Fujin city, 900 miles northeast of Beijing in Heilongjiang province, close to the Russian border. In a few weeks, it had spread to half a dozen other areas around the country, raising fundamental ideological questions for a government that still describes itself as Marxist-Leninist after 30 years of economic reforms.

Although much of the communist system has been jettisoned over the years, all of China's rural land is still owned by the state. Farmers have usually been allowed to lease plots for 30 years at a stretch, after which they can renew the lease. But ownership -- and the right to sell -- has remained in the hands of village-level leaders and party secretaries.

Here in the jurisdiction of Fujin, more than 70 villages have tried to privatize their lands over the past month, according to local farmers. As word of their movement spread on the Internet, they said, farmers to the south, in Jiangsu and Shaanxi provinces and in the Chengdu and Tianjin regions, followed suit. Farmers in 20 other locations have discussed doing so but have been afraid to come out with a public declaration, activists said.

The Fujin farmers focused on 250,000 acres that had been taken over by local officials in the 1990s for sale to private agriculture companies. Only part of the land was in theory redistributed last month, they said, because police moved in and prevented further allocations. But the farmers have since moved beyond the issue of the seized land and asserted the right to own all the collective farmland that they currently work under lease.

"The encroached-upon collective land should be divided evenly by households and possessed by us farmers," said a statement issued in the name of the Fujin villages and posted on the Internet. "Our farmers' land rights should include the right to use the land, the right to make income from it, the right to inherit it and dispose of it and the right to negotiate over it and set the price of it with developers. . . . So-called collective ownership has actually deprived farmers of their rights as landowners for a long time."

The nascent movement, although tiny within a peasant population of 700 million, has confronted the Chinese Communist Party with a difficult challenge: If the experience of the past 30 years has shown the wisdom of privatizing state-owned industry and moving toward a market economy, why would it not be wise to privatize the land and bring it into the market economy, as well?

"In the industrial sector in cities, ownership of the means of production is clearly defined, but in rural areas, the relationship between farmers and their land, their basic means of production, is not clear," said Zhong Dajun, who runs the nongovernmental Dajun Center for Economic Observation and Study in Beijing. "So this has generated protests from farmers. This shows their attitude toward the land-ownership system. They are not satisfied with the current system of collective land ownership."

That is not the kind of issue the party wanted to address as China enters a period of intense international scrutiny leading up to the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. Its initial reaction has been to dismiss the whole idea, saying history shows that peasants were exploited by private landlords before the communist takeover in 1949.

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