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.
"It is a historic lesson," Zhen Xinli, deputy director of the Communist Party Central Committee's policy research office, said at a news conference Dec. 26. "China's socialist system and the constitution have ensured collective ownership for rural land."
The issue has long been key in Chinese communist ideology. During China's civil war, Mao Zedong's forces gathered millions of peasants to support his movement against the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek on the strength of promises to rid the country of hated private landlords and give the land to those who farmed it.
Because of what appears to be a firm party stand, the farmers' current efforts to change the system might not survive China's repressive security apparatus.
In Changchunling, dozens of police officers burst in and tried to break up the Dec. 19 meeting half an hour after it began, farmers recalled. Yu Changwu, who had helped organize a similar meeting 10 days earlier at nearby Dong Nan'an village, was imprisoned almost immediately, they said. Liu Zhenyu, a fellow activist also taken into custody, was recently released, associates said.
"We are risking our lives to divide up our land," said a Changchunling farmer. "We have stuck out our necks. But no matter what happens to us, no matter what price we have to pay, we must get our lands back."
The Fujin city propaganda department dismissed the farmers' claims as meaningless statements by people who do not represent their villages. The declaration, it said, was "a distortion of the facts, deviating from the facts and intentionally spreading rumors."
Farmers in the Fujin area have become cautious in talking about their movement, demanding anonymity and cloaking visitors from police or possible informers along the snow-blown lanes that connect their low-lying villages. In their view, the police have been ordered to protect not only the socialist system of land ownership but also corrupt officials in Fujin city who have profited from sales of farmland to developers.
"More than half the officials in Fujin city should get the death penalty, they are so corrupt," said a farmer standing in the snow at the main intersection of Dong Nan'gang.
Because many of China's 700 million farmers similarly distrust officials, the idea of private land ownership has found a ready audience. Land sales by local officials have been the main cause of peasant riots that have erupted frequently across China over the past several years.
But here in the Fujin area, farmers have not just exploded in anger, but have taken on the system that gives officials their power over the land. Moreover, they have coordinated with other farmers via the Internet and sought tactical advice from democracy advocates in Beijing who see an opportunity to advance their political agenda.
"It is a frontal challenge," one activist said.
The activist, who discussed his work on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that he had written the communique issued by the Fujin farmers and influenced their decision to declare private ownership of their land. In the declaration, he sought to turn the Communist Party's historical recrimination against landlords on its head, saying that local officials abuse farmers in the same way as landlords did before 1949.
"They have actually become landlords," the farmers' declaration said. "And farmers have been forced to become serfs. We decided to change the structure of land ownership and protect the land rights of farmers through family or individual ownership."
The activists' hope is that the Fujin privatization movement can turn out like a celebrated farmers' revolt at Xiaogang village in Anhui province in 1978. After the farmers rebelled against the communal system then in force and demanded their own plots of land, the Beijing government undertook changes that led to the current system of 30-year leases on family plots.
Some scholars and researchers with party-affiliated institutes have also suggested that giving farmers some kind of ownership rights is the only way to resolve recurring unrest in the countryside. When riots break out, they have noted, the main reason often is farmers' frustration with local officials who want to sell village land to developers.
"This is the only way we can protect our land against the corrupt officials," said a farmer who participated in the attempt to redistribute Changchunling's land.