Farmers in China Face Great Wall

Times Staff Writer

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.”

The farmers say they don’t resent economic reforms and even accept the inevitability of farmland giving way to urban growth. But they do resent being denied a hearing or any opportunity to negotiate a fair price.

About two years ago, Huang grasped what many other villagers didn’t, that this battle would take more advanced skills than most of them possessed, including legal knowledge and the ability to use the Internet to publicize their plight far beyond Yanshou.

Villagers couldn’t afford a lawyer. Most attorneys were too intimidated to take the case, anyway. Lawyers who challenge the state face harassment, suspension of their licenses and, in extreme cases, prison. So Huang set about educating himself, buying law books, researching on his son’s computer and e-mailing experts for advice.

Yao, of neighboring Xibai, pulled out two briefcases of dog-eared documents that were Huang’s legal handiwork, some of them bearing official chops, others filled with thumbprints used by villagers in lieu of signatures.

The papers detail a two-year trail of frustration as villagers saw their appeals denied or ignored by the government of Fujian province; the State Council, which is akin to China’s Cabinet; the Fujian Intermediate Court; the Fujian Supreme Court; and the Petitioner’s Office. The latter directed them back to provincial authorities, who stood by their original eviction notice.

Local police and officials as well as the Xiamen Tegong Real Estate Co., the developer of the site, declined to comment, said they weren’t aware of the case or referred calls to other offices that didn’t answer.

Increasingly frustrated, Huang applied for a permit to hold a demonstration in August. Police interrogated and imprisoned him for 15 days for “disturbing social order.” Undeterred, Huang headed for Beijing in early November, hoping for a hearing with the central government. Local authorities got wind of it, however, and police were waiting on the Beijing platform when his train arrived 35 hours later.

Huang managed to call one of his brothers as he was being arrested for “gathering crowds and disturbing social order.”

Lu Guang, an attorney Huang hired in January, said his client had been beaten by other inmates at a jail in Putian city, which holds jurisdiction over the villages.

Putian, a city with four times the population of San Francisco that few outside China have heard of, is home to decaying communist factories and crumbling apartments mixed with gleaming new government offices and condominiums.

Lu said Huang was imprisoned because he had been an effective organizer and challenged a compensation offer that was ridiculously low, even by Chinese standards.

“No wonder the farmers are so angry, I’ve never seen such a rip-off,” he said. “I think they’re very scared of Huang’s power.”

Few question the breadth of frustration welling up in the countryside.

“I think this is very, very serious,” said Li Jian, a farmers’ rights activist. “China should not build its economy by stealing from farmers.”

More debatable is whether the problems are serious enough to threaten the Communist Party.

Chinese analysts and activists say Beijing has intimidated and imprisoned protest leaders, and isolated hot spots to prevent generally uneducated local discontents from joining hands with intellectuals, activists or city dwellers.

“As long as they have the guns, I believe they’ll remain in power,” said Wang Yi, a professor at Chengdu University.

Although increased aid to the countryside may provide temporary relief, analysts say the real solution lies in land reform, greater rural property rights, more equitable compensation and a legal system credible enough to funnel social frustration off the streets and into the courts.

But these changes are unlikely anytime soon because of the threat they represent to the Communist Party’s power and privilege, the analysts say.

And Beijing’s helping hand might actually make matters worse. Eliminating taxes on farmers has left many local governments short on revenue, prompting bureaucrats to grab more land, farmers say.

Back at the family farmhouse, Huang’s son said he was proud of his father for leading the villagers’ fight. Police questioned him for five hours, hoping he would incriminate his father.

“I miss him,” Huang Chaoping said, glancing at once-white walls covered with cooking grease and an old calendar.

His uncle Huang Weiliang, who also was detained by police for 15 days, said his family and the rest of the villagers would not give up.

“We Huangs are fighters,” he said. “It’s in our genes. The local government has taken our land, and they’re obviously acting illegally.”


Gu Bo in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.