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Farmers in China Face Great Wall

Villagers have little legal recourse as officials seize their increasingly valuable land.

April 19, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

YANSHOU, China — The teenager shifted his lanky body in a worn folding chair and reflected on his father.

"He's brave," said Huang Chaoping, 17, glancing at the grimy walls and dirt-caked floor of their farmhouse. "I really admire his courage."

His father, Huang Weizhong, was seized by police on a Beijing railway platform and has languished in jail for five months. He is accused of "disturbing social order." His real crime, however, may be his belief that the rule of law should trump raw power.

Events in Yanshou, where powerful local officials stand to make a killing by strong-arming villagers, represent a tiny chapter in China's great land grab. Uneducated farmers, once considered the backbone of the Communist Party, are facing off in growing numbers against well-funded local officials versed in divide-and-conquer tactics, intimidation and backroom dealing.

From 1998 to 2005, there were more than 1 million cases of illegal seizure involving at least 815,447 acres, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources.

China's communist rulers have watched farmers' increasingly desperate protests with alarm, fearful they could undermine one-party rule. The nation saw 87,000 "public order disturbances" in 2005, a euphemism for riots and uprisings.

The Communist Party has responded to the protests with a reform program for the countryside that includes subsidies and tax cuts. Premier Wen Jiabao has called on local officials to stop illegal land grabs. Most villagers here believe he understands their plight, and blame local officials for misinterpreting his will.

Several clashes between farmers with pitchforks and well-armed police in neighboring Guangdong province have turned deadly in recent months. In Dongzhou village, police opened fire in December on farmers angry over seizure of land for a wind-power plant, killing at least three of them.

A month later, a 13-year-old girl died during a demonstration in another village. And a woman was reported killed last week in a third village after police moved in to dismantle an illegal irrigation system.

Although city dwellers enjoy long-term use and resale rights, giving them a stake in China's rising prosperity, changes in land laws after 1998 generally excluded farmers from sale negotiations, giving the state a de facto monopoly on structuring deals and setting prices.

Clashes in wealthier coastal provinces appear more numerous, social scientists say, in part because development drives land values higher, increasing the temptation to displace farmers, and because their proximity to Hong Kong allows more information to seep out.

Villagers here say the land is a source of identity central to their history. Huang's father tended this land, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather, well before the Communist Party came to power.

The people of Yanshou and 10 neighboring communities have eschewed violence, vowed to scrupulously follow the law, patiently pursued appeals and accepted orders not to demonstrate.

"We're civilized and don't do things illegally," said Yao Zhengchun, a leader from neighboring Xibai involved in the struggle, pulling out well-worn copies of China's protest and public order laws. "Huang has told us many times, 'Stay within the law, don't mess up.' "

In return, villagers have seen their land bulldozed, their appeals and hearing requests denied, leader imprisoned and calls for justice all but ignored.

Huang, 46, never asked for a central role in this drama. Like most people in this fertile area of rice fields and orchards, he stopped attending school after ninth grade. Villagers describe a youngster who was good at math, blessed with a natural curiosity and a strong sense of right and wrong. He returned from the army in the 1970s more disciplined, confident and focused, they say, and he was chosen as a village production leader a couple of years later.

"He's not a party member," said Huang Weiliang, 42, his youngest brother. "But he lives exactly according to party standards."

The older sibling's leadership skills emerged in the conflict over land with the local government.

Initially villagers thought the government would seize only a few mu, a measure equivalent to roughly a sixth of an acre, and trusted local officials to act in good faith.

They got a rude awakening. The government wanted more than 50 acres of prime land, offering farmers just $2,800 per mu in compensation, slightly more than a couple of years' worth of crops. And the land already had been sold to a developer to build villas at $92,800 a mu, a profit of 3,200%.

Farmers say they suspect much of the money will line the pockets of local officials.

"These local officials make more money than bank robbers," said Huang Weizhong's older brother Huang Weide, 54, a lean chain-smoker with sad eyes. Bulldozers were ripping red dirt from a neighboring mountain to flatten land that until a few weeks ago nourished his litchi trees.

"I planted them myself," he said. "They were like my children."

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