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Protests in China over local grievances surge, and get a hearing

The demonstrators have a narrow agenda and concrete demands: Farmers want a stop to confiscations of their land or to get better compensation. Homeowners want to stop demolitions.

October 08, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

"It wasn't until a police car was overturned that the government started to pay attention," said Li Jun, 22, an environmental activist in Haining in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where villagers last month stormed the gates of a solar-panel factory, smashing windows and vandalizing cars.

For months, villagers had been complaining that the plant's discharge was killing fish in the river and raising cancer rates. After four days of rioting, authorities closed the plant and the operator issued a formal apology.

In Anshun, a small city in the southern province of Guizhou, the death of a disabled fruit vendor in the custody of the chengguan, neighborhood police widely disliked throughout China for their brutality, brought thousands of infuriated people out into the streets hurling stones and overturning cars in July. Within days, authorities sacked the officers involved.

Residents of a Guangdong province fishing village called Wukan who watched luxury villas crop up on what had been their land ransacked municipal offices and a restaurant and ranch belonging to a wealthy Hong Kong real estate developer in late September. As a result, authorities agreed to an investigation of all land deals in the southern village going back to 1978.

Last month, residents in a neighboring village, inspired by example, began a similar protest.

"We have a huge gap between rich and poor in our village. We want to see what role land sales play in that," said Zhang Chenhao, 22, who calls himself one of a group of "patriotic youths" in Wukan.

Property confiscation is probably the largest single trigger for extreme protest. A 79-year-old man immolated himself last year to protest an eviction; in May, a farmer set bombs in three government buildings, killing himself and two others.

The woman who stripped at the Shanghai courthouse, Zhuang Jinghui, complained that her home and clinic were demolished in 2008 for redevelopment and that she was tricked out of the compensation she was promised. The extreme protest was effective: The judge and prosecutor handling her case sat down for a meeting and promised to get the case solved by the end of the year.

The land issue looms large in the countryside. Local governments last year earned $470 billion from land deals, up from $70 million in 1989, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources, and farmers — who lease their land rather than own it under the communist system — have scant protection if local officials want to give the leases to real estate developers who will pay more. Compensation is often inadequate.

Chinese laws designed to protect farmland by requiring permission from the State Council — in effect, the country's Cabinet — for transfers are widely ignored by local officials.

Ma Jinhua, a 43-year-old resident of Siping, in the northeastern province of Jilin, said she was sowing corn seeds on fields her husband's family had farmed for generations when local officials, accompanied by uniformed police, ordered her off the land.

In the two years since, villagers have managed to stave off the building of a pharmaceutical factory by confronting engineering crews and, in July, sabotaging surveyors' equipment.

"We usually send the women and old people out. We figure they won't hurt us. The local government has hired thugs with sticks and clubs. If the young men go out, it will turn violent," said Ma, who was in Beijing recently with other villagers trying to get a hearing at the petition office

So far they haven't dared to throw rocks or overturn cars.

"If we did anything like that, they'd kill us," said Xie Yajun, a 53-year-old neighbor. "But we are reading law books. We are getting ourselves prepared."

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