In Southeast China, Skepticism on Land Reforms

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

HEBU, China -- More than 1,300 soldiers and riot police massed on a verdant ridge here in southeastern China earlier this month, facing off against a nearly equal number of angry farmers protesting plans to build a massive plastics factory on their land.

Tens of thousands of such standoffs take place each year in China, and they reflect the Communist Party's greatest fear: social and economic instability. Six days after the demonstration in the village of Hebu, the Chinese government announced reform measures that, at their core, are designed to curb demonstrations of rural unrest.

Described by the party as the most significant land reform package in three decades, the measures are intended to ensure that farmers receive compensation for land lost to development, without slowing the breakneck pace of industrial growth. They do so by allowing farmers to directly transfer their land, still technically owned by the state, to developers or other businesses.

But here in the rice-and-corn-growing region of Guangdong province, where tensions are still running high weeks after the protest, farmers say the changes do not address their main grievance: corruption, much of it directed by local party officials far below the radar of the central government in Beijing.

"I don't think this will give us more protection," said a farmer in the village of Xianyi, two hours' drive from Hebu, who gave his surname as Li. "We have no expectations. We just hope the government will not further take away our land, because we live on the land. If it's sold, we will lose our livelihoods."

Guangdong province is where the economic reforms that led to the dismantling of communes first took root during the 1980s. But in the intervening years, the wealth gap has widened between the cities, where a prosperous middle class is taking shape, and the countryside, whose peasants were at the heart of the Chinese revolution.

In recent years, farmers in western Guangdong have been told their land is needed to help make room for industry moving inland from the more prosperous and expensive coastal regions. Residents of Xianyi say they have lost 33 acres of collective village land to a road-building project, 165 acres to an industrial park and, most recently, 13 acres to a market -- all without adequate recompense.

Farmers are allocated land based on the size of their households, but they also bid for land held by the collective, or village officials. Every year, there's less and less of it.

"Again, they acted before telling us," said Li Wuzai, 65, a retired farmer in Xianyi. The highway project brought in about $448,000 for the village, Li said. But residents saw only about $90,000 of that, with each of them pocketing $29.

An agriculture official in the town of Xiangang, which oversees Xianyi, said residents would welcome the central government's new policy because it was already working in practice.

But farmers disputed that assertion, saying that compensation for seized land has been virtually nonexistent and that the transfers seemed primarily designed to line the pockets of party officials.

"All the officials here are corrupt," a vegetable farmer said as he set up a market stall in Xianyi. "They sold away our land without paying us. Most villagers are afraid to talk about it because they're afraid of retaliation."

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