Chinas Peasants Lose Land to Development


2004-02-04
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Government land requisitions create new class of poverty

Government land requisitions in China are increasingly depriving peasants of their land and livelihood, creating a situation in which economic growth is built on the exploitation of the country's rural majority, RFA's Mandarin service reports.

According to an article in the official People's Daily newspaper Monday, the rapid industrialization and urbanization fueling China's booming economy have resulted in 40 million Chinese peasants losing their land, and consequently their status and livelihood. This number of peasants has seen an increase of more than two million each year.

Experts interviewed by RFA say the problem is becoming more and more acute, with a simmering sense of unrest in many parts of the country.

"These issues have caused a lot of conflict in society. There's a very acute sense of grievance and discontent," U.S.-based Chinese economist Chen Pokong told RFA reporter Shi Shan.

"They haven't yet come up with a reasonable and effective way of dealing with the problem of land requisitions and so on, which takes account of the interests of people at all levels in society.

In China, all land still belongs to the state, although farmers cultivate crops on land leased for 30-year periods from the state. Local authorities renegotiate these leases if they need the land for development, often using coercive and abusive tactics to remove people from their land.

Currently in the western region of China, which the government is keen to develop to fight poverty, farming families receive just U.S.$2,200 per person in exchange for farming rights. That sum is just 1.5 times the urban per capita annual income.

The People's Daily warned that such practices were creating a newly impoverished class in the population, whose numbers were increasing at a rate of two million people a year.

Since 2000, a government policy push to develop the poorer western regions of China had driven local governments to make big profits by renegotiating land leases, leading to a six-fold rise in the number of complaints over unfair compensation between 1998 and 2002, the paper said.

Professor Kang Zhengguo of Yale University said it would be hard to predict the outcome if the government did not sort out the problem soon. "The problem lies with the entire land rights system, which is incomplete. The price at which land is sold now is very high, but the rate at which the peasants are compensated for land [by the government] is very low," he said.

Chen said that the interests of a huge part of China's population were being sacrificed to overall economic success, and that rural communities had few advocates among legislative bodies in Beijing.

"There are very few representatives of the peasants in the National People's Congress and in the consultative conference. Peasants are the largest section of China's population, at around 900 million, but they have no representation, no one to speak on their behalf. There is very little protection of their rights and interests," he said.

Chen said economic growth achieved in this way was in itself an unstable situation. However, he expected the exploitation of peasants to get worse in future, and it was hard to say what the outcome would be.

The requisition of land by local governments and state-owned enterprises has become one of the most controversial topics in both urban and rural areas in China, as new roads, factories, and housing and office developments have sprung up nationwide.

Local residents evicted from their homes often complain of poor government compensation and forceful removals, while many accuse the government of cashing in on the real estate market at their expense. Some residents' groups in urban areas have lodged class-action suits against local governments and developers.

Chinese attorneys and legal scholars have denounced the now-widespread aggressive demolition and relocation practices as government-sponsored thuggery, which China's weak judicial system is failing to check.

As early as the 1920s, Communist leader Mao Zedong recognized that an exploited and oppressed peasantry could become a powerful force for change, but also for destruction, if not properly handled.

In the same article that warned his followers that "a revolution is not a dinner party," Mao spoke of "a mighty revolutionary upsurge" in China's countryside.

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