A half-dozen policemen burst into Lin Zhengxu's home and grabbed him as he awoke from an afternoon nap. After beating and kicking him, family and neighbors recalled, the policemen immobilized Lin's arms by pulling his shirt halfway over his head. Then they tried to carry him off to jail.
But the police had not counted on Lin's friends and neighbors. After years of fighting back against the government's seizure of their rice paddies and vegetable plots, they fought to help the man leading their battle. Neighbors rushed the policemen, witnesses recounted, yanked Lin away and spirited him into hiding. Within three days of the police raid, family members said, Lin had made his way to Beijing, nearly 1,000 miles north of this steamy city on the East China Sea.
For Lin, the champion of Shishan village on Fuzhou's northwestern outskirts, the escape was a rare victory during years of campaigning against what farmers here say was an illegal land grab by local Communist Party officials and government authorities. Using courts, petitions and appeals to officials at all levels, Shishan's peasants have fought in vain for a decade to get compensation for 200 acres of rich farmland they maintain was unfairly confiscated by local authorities and sold for development.
"It's corruption," declared Huang Jinchun, 36, whose family lost a third of an acre in Shishan and, he said in an interview, has yet to receive a penny's worth of compensation. "They just took our land and put the money into their pockets."
The 8,000 people of Shishan have waged one of the longest fights in China over such confiscations. But their struggle has found echoes all over Fuzhou, the surrounding Fujian province and the country. As China's headlong development pits farmers against developers allied with local officials, the peasants and other rural landowners who still make up 60 percent of China's 1.3 billion people increasingly have tried to resist.
The Construction Ministry said it received three times as many complaints in the first quarter of this year as in the same period last year. By the end of June, Deputy Minister Fu Wenjia told the Beijing News that 4,000 groups and more than 18,600 individuals had lodged petitions over allegedly illicit land transfers.
Farmers have also taken their complaints to the street. Hundreds lined up bicycles and rickshaws to block traffic in a Beijing suburb on Aug. 20, protesting the seizure of land by a state-owned development company building high-end villas for foreigners and wealthy Chinese seeking to escape the capital's downtown pollution.
In a country where peasants have traditionally played a large role and helped propel the Communist Party to power, the farmers' cause has found wide support in the central government, at least according to official declarations.
The Ministry of Land and Resources said it disciplined officials involved in about 168,000 illegal land deals last year. The party's Central Committee announced last month after a four-day meeting that it had expelled the former land and resources minister, Tian Fenghsan, after a finding by the party that he took $600,000 in bribes. Premier Wen Jiabao, in his annual report in March, vowed to "resolutely put an end to illegal acquisition and use of farmland."
An Unbalanced Fight
As Lin's rescue demonstrated, however, resistance to land grabs in China's 34 provinces has sometimes veered into violence, raising the specter of popular rural unrest that has haunted China's rulers throughout history.
Farmers pushed from their land on an island in the Pearl River in southern China have repeatedly clashed with Guangzhou police in recent months. The New York-based organization Human Rights in China reported Sept. 1 that 15 people were injured in a clash Aug. 1 at a factory in the Fuzhou suburb of Cangshan between police and protesters who said their property had been illegally seized.
"The situation of peasants being deprived of their land is very serious in China," said Li Baiguang, director of the Beijing Qimin Research Center. Li, who has studied land seizures in Fujian and other rural provinces, added, "If the interests of the peasants cannot be properly protected and the conflicts cannot be settled, Chinese society might suffer from turbulence."
It is an uneven battle. Party and government officials at the village, county, township and provincial levels use their power to exploit provisions in Chinese law that allow land confiscation in the name of the public interest. They retain a monopoly on deciding the public interest and the compensation.
The China Daily newspaper cited official estimates that nearly 10,000 square miles of farmland were transformed by development in 2003. Rice paddies became factories. Cabbage patches became apartment compounds. Wheat fields became golf courses.
The land lost by farmers around Qingkou, a formerly rural town on Fuzhou's southern edge, became a stretch of factories making cars and car parts. A dun-colored stone wall has been erected to close in acre upon acre of gleaming new plants and row upon row of newly produced delivery vans in what once was known as the "home town of vegetables."
Officials from Minhou County, which encompasses Qingkou, promised when they confiscated the land in 1998 that farmers would receive between $4,000 and $5,000 each for their tiny plots and that many would find good jobs in the factories, local peasant activists said.
But the most anyone received was $150, they said. And because of a struggle over compensation that had become bitter by the time the factories opened, local peasants seeking jobs said they were passed over in favor of more compliant migrant workers.
Xiao Xiangjin, a farmer and correspondent for China Reform magazine, took up the peasants' cause as soon as it became clear they would not be given the compensation they were promised. He petitioned the courts. He petitioned the county government. He petitioned the provincial party leadership. According to his family, he also went to Beijing and petitioned whomever he could get to listen.
Perhaps most irritating to local officials, he claimed that much of the compensation money that was never paid to the peasants was invested in the new factories by local officials for their own profit.
The reaction was not long in coming. Police came to arrest Xiao two years ago as he slept at 1 a.m., family members recalled. He sneaked out the back and jumped over a wall to escape, they said, hiding for several months until official anger died down.
But authorities still had their eyes on him. He was searched and questioned at Fuzhou International Airport last April as he left for Beijing. The day after he returned, April 5, Xiao was arrested on his way to work and sent to a labor camp for political reeducation, his family said. Twenty days after the arrest, the family received an official notice saying he had been sentenced to a year because he had entertained prostitutes four times in his home and office at Qingkou.
A colleague of Xiao's who sometimes accompanied him to Beijing, Wu Zhong Kai, was also arrested in July, neighbors said. As a result, the protest movement has been left leaderless and peasants appear cowed for the moment.
Xiao's family and neighbors were interviewed outside their town and declined to allow their names to be published for fear of retribution. "Without a leader, what can we do?" one of them asked.
Officials in Shishan and Qingkou, contacted by telephone, said they did not know enough about the land seizures to comment.
But a low-level Communist Party cadre caused a national sensation nearly two months ago by publishing an open letter accusing his superiors of blocking attempts to investigate similar land seizures in another suburb of Fuzhou. Within days, the letter was pulled from Web sites and the government-controlled press was ordered to stop reporting on it. The Fuzhou government said the official, Huang Jingao, had violated party rules. It ordered him to proceed with a self-examination of his errors, which a declaration said were caused by "individualism."
Individualism was a goal of the well-to-do professionals who, in the 1990s, built about 165 luxury houses on Xiao Guwei, an island in the Pearl River where it flows through booming Guangzhou 300 miles southwest of here. No two houses were the same, and most enjoyed serene views of the murky river that belied their nearness to the busy city center.
"It used to be so pretty," said Xie Rongfu, 43, a computer whiz who built a five-bedroom home overlooking the Pearl. "From a boat, you could see cows and goats. That natural beauty is why I bought the land to build a house."
Since then, Guangdong province's party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, endorsed Xiao Guwei as the site for his signature project: a $2.4 billion campus for Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to be called University Town. To make way for dormitories and classrooms, Xie's home and most of the others like it have been condemned. The island is now dotted not only with new buildings, but also with the debris of demolished dream homes.
Since last October, when construction began in earnest, about 10,000 farmers also have been forced to relocate, their shacks bulldozed and their land seized. Many peasants, refusing to leave, clashed repeatedly with police, who used dogs and helicopters to break up protests during the clearing operation. A protest leader, Guo Zhihua, was jailed.
Liang Xufeng, 29, a successful landscaper who lost his island home, acknowledged that the farmers' lot was worse than his. Although they get help buying a new apartment, he said, the peasants have been left without land, and thus without a livelihood.
But Liang had his own shock recently when he returned from a business trip with his wife to nearby Dongguan. Police and demolition crews had destroyed his house during his absence.
Another resident, Chu Jiaquan, 42, an art professor who was known as Ken when he lived in San Jose, said he spent 10 years having his dream home built and filling it with art objects. He felt lucky, he said, because the other half of his two-home building was occupied by his former art professor and mentor.
Now that half has been gutted and the professor is gone, despite court cases and multiple appeals by lawyers in Guangzhou and Beijing. Authorities have condemned Chu's half as well, but so far it has escaped demolition because, Chu believes, he is a U.S. citizen. He has joined his neighbors in a public relations and court battle that they say they will not abandon even after their homes are rubble.
"It's not the money," Chu explained. "It's the way they treat us."
Guangzhou authorities have responded that there is nothing illegal about seizing land to build University Town and that they are offering fair compensation to homeowners as well as to poor farmers.
But Liang, echoing others' complaints, said he had been offered $280,000 in compensation for a house with a market value several times that amount. Moreover, he and other homeowners expressed the belief that authorities, despite their declarations now, will end up selling confiscated riverbank land to developers at ultra-high prices.
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.