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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 August 2005, 00:35 GMT 01:35 UK
China faces growing land disputes
By Daniel Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

Footage of the clashes in the Chinese village

They came to the village of Shengyou, south of Beijing, in the early hours of the morning.

A gang of more than 100 men wearing camouflage gear and construction helmets, some armed with hunting rifles, clubs and shovels, clashed violently with local villagers. Six people died.

The riot in Shengyou in June was actually nothing new. Such skirmishes over land are getting increasingly common in China.

But what was different about this one - and what ultimately made it stand out as an example of a much wider problem - was that the incident was filmed by a local resident and smuggled out to the international media.

The battle of Shengyou village has come to highlight one of China's sharpest social issues - the Communist Party's complete control of land allocation.

More than 66 million Chinese farmers have lost their land in the past 10 years. It is a land grab which has fattened the wallets of government officials and left tens of thousands of people homeless.

In recent years, however, more and more farmers have become aware of their rights, and have begun to resist - leading to rising social unrest.

Some estimates suggest more than three million people were involved in demonstrations last year, and the government in Beijing is getting increasingly concerned.

Violent exchange

Chinese state media said the residents of Shengyou village had been resisting the takeover of their property by an electricity company, which wanted to build a power plant there.

6 Nov 2004: Paramilitary troops put down an uprising of 100,000 farmers in Sichuan province
10 April 2005: 20,000 peasants drive off more than 1,000 riot police in Zhejiang province
11 June 2005: Six farmers die in a fight with armed men in Shengyou, Hebei province
6 July 2005: Several thousand farmers stand up to 600 policemen in Guangdong
20 July 2005: Hundreds people near Beijing block the entrance to land assigned for use for the 2008 Olympics

The gang was trying to force them to give up. It emerged that there had been a similar clash earlier in the year, which had gone unreported.

It is a situation which is repeated tens of thousands of times every year in China - most of them unmentioned in the country's tightly controlled state media.

Many peasant farmers go to Beijing to file petitions and complain to higher government offices about their losses.

But local governments often set up checkpoints to block the petitioners, or send officials to Beijing to round them up and lock up the leaders when they return home.

Other villagers seek legal help, but even if the court rules in their favour, the rulings are sometimes totally ignored and the bulldozers continue to roll in.

These land rights disputes go to the very heart of many of the problems facing China.

In this vast country, all land is owned by the state, which gives the Communist Party the ultimate decision on how it is used.

In the past this has been an important factor in the country's rapid economic growth, allowing the government to requisition land it might need for development.

But it has also caused massive discontent. When China built the Three Gorges Dam, hundreds of thousands of people were either relocated, often to poor agricultural land, or received inadequate compensation.

Hou Wenzhou, director of Empowerment and Rights Institute, a Beijing-based non-government organisation, summed up the nature of this aggressive land seizure in a recent interview with the BBC.

"Legal entitlement of farm land is not clearly defined in China. It looks like it belongs to the farmers, but if the government wants to take it away, it's very easy," he said.

"The farmers are told to give up their personal interests and individual rights to serve the state. The interests of the farmers are totally ignored."

The Communist Party's complete control over land allocation has also led to corruption on an enormous scale.

Power rests in the hands of party cadres, and corrupt local officials can often act with impunity. They sometimes take over land to sell directly to developers, pocketing the profits.

They also take bribes or cream off much of the compensation paid to those who are moved out of their homes.

This abuse of authority in the pursuit of wealth is one of the dark sides of China's economic miracle.

Fear of dissent

All this is causing concern in Beijing. Throughout the centuries, China's rulers have always feared instability.

Hu Jintao, Chinese president (archive picture)
Hu Jintao faces a major challenge in China's rural areas
In imperial times, rural rebellions and unrest sometimes led to the downfall of dynasties.

In the modern era the Communist Party has kept a very tight grip on power, ruthlessly suppressing any challenge to its authority.

Its response to these protests has been to try to strike a delicate balancing act.

State-run media have talked about crushing threats to stability, and provincial authorities have used force to break up demonstrations.

But at the same time senior officials have publicly declared that local corruption is to blame.

China's President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came into office saying they wanted to do more to improve the lives of those living in China's rural areas, but now they face a major challenge in the countryside.

If they fail to address it, the situation could spiral out of control.

But dealing with the problem will mean rooting out endemic corruption in the Communist Party. And that is something that successive Chinese leaders have so far failed to do.


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