Dispute Simmers Despite Reform Plan

China's leaders say they will allow the transfer of land use rights between farmers but stop short of allowing them full property rights, amid a simmering land dispute in Guangdong province.
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Authorities in Guangning county, in China’s southern Guangdong province, confront residents who refuse to evacuate their homes.
Authorities in Guangning county, in China’s southern Guangdong province, confront residents who refuse to evacuate their homes.
Photo: Volunteer

HONG KONG—A dispute between farmers and local authorities in southern China's Guangdong province over the use of farmland for an industrial project is still simmering, as villagers say they will risk losing compensation rather than sign the government's proposed package.

“The police pulled out of the village yesterday,” a villager surnamed Li from Guangdong's Wuhe township, in Guangning county, said.

“Right now the villagers are very frustrated. There are a lot of strong feelings but as soon as someone goes to blockade the construction site they are detained. Nobody dares to go there any more,” he said.

The Guangning county dispute flared as China's top leadership announced plans to enable the transfer of land-use rights for farmers at a plenary session of the Communist Party's central committee.

Until now, only town-dwellers have been able to own property and sell it on the open market, leaving China's 900 million rural residents vulnerable to officials anxious to sign lucrative property deals. Now, farmers will either be able to lease out farmland they hold under "responsibility" contracts with the government, or transfer them to others.

However, local authorities frequently flout such contracts and use the police to enforce their will in disputes, often detaining anyone who tries to organize opposition to their plans, including lawyers.

Call for full rights

A villager wounded in the confrontation. Photo: Volunteer
A villager wounded in the confrontation. Photo: Volunteer Volunteer
Former top Party aide Bao Tong called on China's leadership to confer full rights of land ownership on farmers.

"Over the past 50 years, the Chinese Communist Party has run up a debt the size of the heavens with China's farmers," Bao wrote from under house arrest at his Beijing home.

"This plenum is hugely disappointing news for China's rural residents and for the whole nation, because it has failed to throw out the bureaucratic system of land ownership, and failed to confer full property rights on China's farmers," Bao said.

Back in Guangning, Li said there was no sign of compromise.

"The police are still holding three people for questioning who they believe led the protest. We don't know what has become of them," he said.

"The government has said that if we don't go on Oct. 22 to sign the agreement to get our compensation payments, we will get nothing. A lot of villagers still haven't gone to sign the agreement, but they are still going ahead with construction of the project."

Refusal to sign

Li said that while he was too frightened to continue the protest, he would under no circumstances sign the land deal, which he said had been forced on local residents without consultation.

"I will certainly not be signing the land deal. In my village, only a couple of people have signed, and taken the compensation offered."

China's official media said the villagers had tried to disrupt construction of the project, which went ahead by court order last week after winning approval from land resource officials at provincial and national level.

The official Xinhua news agency said more than 30 villagers using iron bars, bricks, and rocks burst into the construction area. There were also around 70 onlookers at the scene. Around 150 police were dispatched to the area, it said.

"Clashes occurred when police were in the process of trying to clear the area," the agency said.

Li said the government version was inaccurate. "The authorities have cut off all information about this incident. Our local Guangning county TV station reported it, but they talked only about the positive aspects, not the bad things that happened. They made it look as if the villagers were in the wrong."

Construction continues

"There has been no improvement in the situation. The diggers keep on digging and the bulldozers keep bulldozing. Construction is proceeding normally."

The official news reports said that the plot of land used by the Guangning county government was part of a land use deal affecting six villages and 379 households, from whom opinions had been sought.

Almost 90 percent of these households had signed the agreement to release the land, and the remainder had objected on the grounds that it would affect the feng shui of the area, it said. Feng shui is an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics believed to create harmony through physical surroundings.

An official who answered the phone at the Wuhe township government last week gave a similar account.

Another villager from Wuhe, Li Jincai, was detained by police on Oct. 13 and released over the weekend. His father Li Hairong and mother were detained at the same time.

"I heard my mother was beaten and injured. I went to see her and was immediately detained and beaten myself. It was the same with my father. He was dragged over there and beaten, detained. I still have a lot of pain in one arm," Li Jincai said.

"The police told me not to speak to anyone about any pain in my body after they let me go, and not to have anything more to do with the land dispute. If I did, they would arrest me again," he said.

Feng shui claim

"I am afraid to. In detention they made me do loads of work and they wouldn't let me sleep until it was finished."

The first villager surnamed Li said: "The authorities are now putting it about that we were acting to preserve feng shui. This is not the case. We were acting to protect our rights over that land. They made it seem as if the authorities were acting completely reasonably, while we were being totally unreasonable."

Villagers said that so far only a handful of households had signed the land transfer deal. They said the reason for their protest was that the compensation levels were set too low, and that they would be unable to meet basic expenses.

There were also concerns that a plastics industry plant would affect their health. They said the government had offered to compensate them 1,700 yuan per mu of rice paddy. And the rate for hillside land was only a few thousand yuan per mu.

Even farmers left with no land at all would receive a one-off payment of around 2,000 yuan (U.S.$292) per head after this compensation was divided between them.

Vow to boost incomes

More than 1,000 police fired tear-gas and detained more than a dozen villagers during last week's clashes with hundreds of demonstrators protesting the land deal.

Violence broke out when villagers from Guangning county tried to stop construction workers from filling in the 1,000 mu (67 hectare) plot of farmland. At least four people were detained and 10 injured.

Officials said the villagers had been compensated at an above-market rate and only a small number had resisted the land expropriation because of their belief in feng shui.

The Third Plenary Session of the 17th Communist Party of China Central Committee focused on issues concerning rural reform and development, official media reported.

China's leaders vowed in a communique to "strive to double the per-capita disposable income of rural residents by 2020."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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