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    Greater China
     Mar 9, 2006
China goes back to the land
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao presented his third Government Work Report this week to the National People's Congress (NPC), there was plenty to boast about.

With China's economy racing along at 9.9% growth last year and surpassing Britain as the fourth-largest economy in the world, the premier clearly enjoyed basking in the nearly constant applause



of the faithful 3,000 delegates assembled at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for his speech.

But the emphasis in this year's report on building a "new socialist countryside" betrays a worrying trend for the central government: outside of the urban centers - which, following the old Soviet model, have been the focus of economic development since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 - there is growing civil unrest over the gross inequities of China's phenomenal economic growth.

Arguably, this increasing discontent among the 800 million people who live in China's rural areas transformed this past year into a grassroots movement that is primarily aimed at combating local corruption, but has also shaken Chinese leaders at the highest level.

Wen's attempts to appease the angry countryside, contained in a new five-year development blueprint, include abolishing the agricultural tax on farmers that dates back more than 2,000 years.

The premier has promised farmers that doing away with the tax will save them 33.6 billion yuan (US$4.2 billion). In addition, he has announced that he will save peasants another $8.75 billion this year by scrapping other fees they currently pay. To increase spending in China's impoverished countryside is a policy of "epoch-making significance", Wen said.

Chinese peasants enjoyed a dramatic rise in living standards after rural reforms in 1979, which saw the people's communes abolished and lifted more than 200 million people out of poverty. But after the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, which affected nearly 100 Chinese cities, the government has followed policies aimed at raising urban incomes and placating the grievances of urban dwellers.

Annual incomes in rural areas average about 2,400 yuan, compared with urban incomes averaging about 8,000 yuan. However, the actual difference in wealth between the country's vast hinterland and cities is much bigger.

Based on a detailed study, the prestigious academic research organization the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that the average urban income was actually seven times that of rural areas, if such benefits as superior education and medical care available to urban dwellers were included.

In his speech to the NPC delegates, Wen called the Chinese leadership's new focus on development of the rural areas "a major change", adding: "We must apply the guiding policies of industry replenishing agriculture and the cities supporting the countryside."

President Hu Jintao has also pledged to raise productivity and the quality of life for Chinese farmers. To achieve this vision, the central government will spend $42.4 billion on rural development, a 14.2% increase over last year. In comparison, defense spending, another priority for Beijing, will increase by 14.7% to $35 billion.

Transforming China's countryside into a model of rural development, however, will require more than rhetoric and billions of dollars. Implacable, deep-seated corruption lies at the heart of peasants' complaints about local officials who enrich themselves by taking their land and poisoning their environment. Increasingly, aided by committed activists, they are fighting back.

More than 40 million farmers have been displaced from their land, and the number is increasing by more than 2 million a year. Landless farmers are now among the poorest people in the country, and their desperate plight has sparked violent outbursts with sometimes tragic results.

Consider, for example, the recent case of the otherwise unremarkable fishing village of Dongzhou, in the city of Shanwei, Guangdong province. On December 6, police in the village, which is about 160 kilometers from Hong Kong, opened fire on a group of protesters whose land had been grabbed by the government to make way for the construction of a power station.

According to local authorities, three people died in the incident, but villagers reported that nearly 20 were killed. But the death toll is not the only thing about which officials and villagers disagree.

Authorities claim villagers were armed with knives, spears and gasoline bombs and mounted an attack warranting the force that was used against them. But residents of Dongzhou say they were engaged in a legitimate protest against the seizure of their land, without adequate compensation, by the Shanwei municipal government.

Since then, a curfew (lifted in January) and a travel ban (still in effect) have been slapped on the village. But small-scale, peaceful protests reportedly continue daily.

In the village of Huaxi in the eastern province of Zhejiang, farmers have scored a rare (if perhaps temporary) victory against official corruption, but at what cost? Ten months after a village protest turned into a riot against the construction of 13 chemical factories on land illegally seized from farmers, the once-humming factory buildings are now empty shells, a testament to the farmers' determination and anger.

The villagers claimed that the factories had poisoned their water and their farmland and were responsible for a number of illnesses, miscarriages and stillbirths. The roadblocks they erected to disrupt transportation to and from the factories were torn down by local authorities, after which their protest turned violent.

But while the factories remain closed for now, the government backlash against the villagers has been harsh. Massive arrests, not to mention allegations of torture in detention, followed the riot. And villagers can only wonder when the now-empty factories will be humming again.

China's most celebrated recent case of grassroots insurgency against corruption occurred in the Guangdong village of Taishi, an erstwhile farming community that has turned into an industrial adjunct to the sprawling city of Guangzhou. There, after yet another land deal that left villagers without fair compensation, residents tried to oust the elected village chief, Chen Jingsheng, for alleged corruption. Chen is also the unelected Communist Party secretary.

Two particularly strong-willed villagers - Feng Qiusheng and Liang Shusheng - demanded last May that Chen open the village account books for public inspection, but he refused. This led to a standoff in early August at the village committee office, where residents blocked the village accountant from what appeared to be an attempt to run off with the books. When police and district officials arrived the following morning to seize the accounts, a group of elderly women staged a sit-in.

The sit-it ended on September 12, when the administrative building housing the committee office was stormed by hundreds of riot police who used truncheons and water canon on the elderly protesters. The district officials took advantage of the opportunity to grab the suspect ledgers. It just so happened that Premier Wen was paying a visit to the region at the time, meeting with regional and city officials, and villagers could not help wondering about the coincidence.

That raid, however, did not stop other protests and clashes with the police. Nor did it prevent Feng and Liang from filing a formal petition, signed by more than 400 of Taishi's 1,500 registered voters, to remove the chief and hold new elections in October. In the end, however, the chief stayed on, no elections were held and government-chosen auditors found no evidence of malfeasance in the keeping of the Taishi accounts.

The moral of the story may seem bleak, but the events in Taishi were seen by many as a sign of hope and progress. First of all, the drawn-out battle between the villagers and their chief became something of a cause celebre that was widely reported in the Hong Kong and international media.

Even more important, the Taishi clashes brought local farmers together with well-known political activists who were attracted to their quest for justice. Peasant organizer Lu Banglie was a great help to villagers during the crisis, as was the former philosophy professor and veteran activist, Yang Maodong - better known in China as Guo Feixiong. Lu and Yang were especially valuable in offering Feng and Liang legal advice in drawing up their petition to remove the chief. Indeed, Lu had already succeeded in removing a corrupt official in his home province of Hubei.

Lu and Yang paid for their activism in Taishi, however. Yang was arrested, while Lu suffered a nasty beating by hired thugs. But the two crusaders were also instrumental in turning Taishi's struggle into an international media event and are partly responsible for what might be called the Taishi effect: just weeks after protests broke out in Taishi, similar demonstrations occurred in villages nearby. And, of course, Chinese officials worry that the trend will continue and that Wen's NPC promises will do little to stop it.

"We need to see clearly that there are many hardships and problems in economic and social life," Wen said in his government work report. "Some deeply seated conflicts that have accumulated over a long time have yet to be fundamentally resolved, and new problems have come up that cannot be ignored."

Professor Xu Yong, a rural expert with Huazhong Shifan University, said: "The widening gap between the cities and the countryside is no longer just a problem of the peasants and the countryside. We have succeeded in the initial industrialization of the country and now every industry and every city should partake in the building of a new countryside."

Xu is among the 200 party cadres and rural experts who took part in a February meeting at the Central Party School where communist leaders announced that development of a "new socialist countryside" was the "foremost task" facing China in the next five years.

While it is true that China's rural population needs more money, what they also need is a legal framework that protects their interests. Since there is no law in China that prevents farmland from being taken for industrial purposes and also no legal guarantee of fair compensation for farmers, it is far too easy for local officials to grab land and at the same time strike lucrative deals for themselves with developers.

The fact that farmland remains collectively owned in China also works against farmers. Critics say the real test of the government's commitment to helping the rural poor lies in Beijing's willingness to go a step further and allow privatization of farmland. At present, farmers can only lease land for 25-30 years.

Last year, the Chinese government recorded 87,000 protests, demonstrations and other "mass incidents", a 6% increase from 2004. In this year's "new socialist countryside", despite the fresh infusion of money, one can expect more.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

(Additional reporting by Antoaneta Bezlova of Inter Press Service.)

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


Beijing takes on local-government mafias (Feb 16, '06)

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A series by Francesco Sisci
(Oct '05)

 
 



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