07/13/2007, 00.00
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Beijing cracking down on illegal land seizures

Land and resources minister introduces stricter measures against illegal seizure of farmland by local government. Beijing sets minimum amount of arable land, but abuses by local officials, which cause social protests and petitions, are often punished only with fines.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China’s newly appointed Land and Resources Minister Xu Shaoshi vowed to boost measures to defend the mainland's farmland from local authorities’ illegal land seizures and sales and reach its target of maintaining a minimum of 120 million hectares of arable land for agriculture. Still he acknowledged that the “illegal use of farmland has not been effectively curbed . . . the situation is grim.”

Local governments may decide what the best way to use land is and how much should remain agricultural, but it is a great power and Mr Xu is aware that corruption was widespread. A former minister of land and resources, Tian Fengshan, was in fact sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption in 2005.

The ministry must work with local governments to make these choices. However, “the interests of the state come above all else, as do those of the people. The [120 million hectares] of arable land is the high-voltage red line which nobody can touch,” he said.

For experts this is minimum needed to main self-sufficiency.

Still, Gan Zangchun, deputy chief inspector of land, said that local officials have approved 80 per cent of the cases of illegally occupied or converted farmland.

The mainland investigated 24,000 such cases involving 14,000 hectares in the first five months of this year alone, but the number of verified cases of corruption remains limited.

According to Xu, 98 commercial bribery cases among land and resources authorities were investigated from August 2005 to May this year, and 66 people were charged with crimes.

He conceded there were legal loopholes as most of those responsible for the illegal occupation or conversion of farmland were fined instead of charged with crimes.

Land disputes are a major reason for the influx of petitioners into Beijing. In China farmers who have farmed land for generations do not always have the right to sue illegal land seizures by local government. In most cases they prefer to petition the central government hoping that they will be heard.

Most of last year’s 70,000 and more social protest cases involved unlawful land seizures for a total number of 131,000 cases concerning about 100,000 hectares, 43,000 of which were farmland.

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