02/12/2008, 00.00

In formerly rural China, the agrarian question threatens to explode

The communist party came to power in part thanks to land protests by farmers. Now, for decades, corrupt officials have been seizing entire villages, to foster industry and construction companies. But the rural population is fighting back and trying to assert its rights over the land it cultivates.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - There are growing protests by farmers over the seizure of land by corrupt officials, to foster industry and construction companies.  The compensation given to the landholders is minimal.  The communist party is beginning to experience how strong and widespread land hunger can be.

Beijing repeats that ownership of the land is "collective" and managed by the government.  As a warning, two of the protest leaders, Yu Changwu and Wang Guilin of Heilongjiang, have been sentenced to forced labour. In Shaanxi, farmers who protest have been arrested.

But Chen Yongmiao, a journalist who defends the rights of rural dwellers, tells the South China Morning Post that the farmers are no longer asking merely for protection against abuse, but are demanding "the land [that has been] theirs for generations. Intellectuals have provided them with the idea of private property rights".

According to official data, 50% of social protests follow the seizure of land and the lack of adequate monetary compensation.  In 2005, there were more than 87,000 verified "mass" protests, while in 2006 they decreased by 16.5%, although they were much more violent.  The minister of land and resources says that land confiscation increased by 17.3% in 2006, reaching 131,000 cases.  These involved about 100,000 hectares of terrain, 76% more than in 2005.  At least 43,000 of the hectares confiscated is farmland.

Chen Xiwen, the government's top adviser on rural policy, promised in January to punish corrupt officials, but he does not seem willing to reconsider collective ownership of land, which is inscribed in the constitution.  A recent reform allowed private ownership of dwellings in the cities, but not of farmland.

Although they are not yet speaking of private property, in Zigong (Sichuan) the rural population is producing thousands of signatures to prevent the creation of an industrial zone on "their" land.  Similar campaigns are taking place in many provinces, and the activists are using the lunar new year vacation to drum up greater support.  Widespread corruption has left many farmers without land, with diminishing trust in the government, and preparing to stand their ground.

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See also
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Protest breaks out as land grabs persist
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China: to stop rural protests, shares in exchange for land
Beijing: "Dongzhou no Tiananmen"