XIAOXI, China — The old farmer doesn't let a day go by without trekking out to his fields with a muddy hoe over his shoulder and rubber boots on his feet.
It's a lifelong habit for Cheng Tianbao, 66, unbreakable even after bulldozers came and turned his world upside-down.
The county government wants to build an industrial park on the farmland that has been the lifeblood of his village. The fields now lie as good as dead under piles of sand dumped by construction crews.
"I still go out there every day, if only just to stare at the land," Cheng said. "I think about the planting season, how I should be sowing wheat and rapeseed. If I stayed home, I would go crazy."
China still has more small farmers than any other country. But their numbers and the land they work are shrinking. Land grabs by developers cashing in on two decades of turbocharged economic growth and local officials looking for a cut of the profits have thrown more than 30 million peasants off their farms, according to government statistics. By 2030, more than 78 million are expected to lose their land. That's about one in every 10 Chinese peasants.
In place of small farms, high-tech industrial parks, real estate projects, golf courses and expressways have sprung up, changing the ancient face of the countryside. Although most Chinese don't regard urbanization itself as unhealthy, the process is often corrupt and development thrives at the expense of a disenfranchised peasantry.
As much as 80% of the nearly 12,000 square miles of farmland turned into development zones has been acquired illegally. The government reported more than 160,000 cases of fraudulent land grabs in 2003, twice the number of the year before.
Land disputes have sparked violent protests and driven petitioners to Beijing to seek redress. Xiaoxi residents are no exception. But authorities have responded with arrests and retaliation.
"My wife and I haven't slept at home for days. We are terrified," said Cheng, who was interviewed in the home of a neighbor. "I can't figure it out. Why don't we peasants have any rights? Why is it that the government can do whatever it wants?"
Mindful of a history of rebellion by peasants, including their role in bringing the Communist Party to power, the central government has repeatedly tried to crack down on land abuse. The Ministry of Land and Resources is seeking to manage land use directly to cut out corruption at the local level.
At the opening session Friday of the annual National People's Congress, rural issues dominated. Premier Wen Jiabao promised to improve farmers' lives by slashing taxes and making land protection a national priority.
"The strictest possible system for protecting farmland will be implemented, and control over the use of farmland will be strengthened in accordance with the law," Wen said in a nationally televised speech in the Great Hall of the People. "We will absolutely put an end to illegal acquisition and use of farmland and rectify unauthorized changes in the use of primary farmland."
But, as an old Chinese saying goes, the sky is high and the emperor is far.
At the heart of the problem is an antiquated land policy. The Communists abolished private ownership of land after taking power in 1949. Land belongs to the state -- and in rural communities, that usually means the local government. As China started to institute reforms in the 1980s, the government tried to increase incentives for agricultural production by allowing peasants to lease land for as long as 30 years. But they had little protection when the building frenzy began.
"Since peasants have no real ownership rights, they could never act as an equal at the negotiating table," said Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "The government owns the land, so almost any land reclamation can be justified in the name of public interest. Peasants have no choice but to back down."
Local officials lease the land to developers at high prices and use the windfall on ambitious construction projects that help them build reputations and gain promotions.
Peasants are supposed to be compensated for the land, but they often get little or nothing. Hu said that land taken from farmers is often not actually used for building because developers can't get the financing. But the farmers don't get the land back. "Displaced peasants can do nothing but watch the land idle away," he said.
The 2,600 residents of Xiaoxi never expected to lose their land. Their village sits in the mountainous interior of eastern China's Zhejiang province. Living standards here are higher than in communities deeper in the hinterland, but Xiaoxi is in the poorest area of the province. It is burdened by high population density and a scarcity of tillable land; there is less than a tenth of an acre for each of the county's 400,000 residents.