Showdown Looms over Chinese Land Ownership

Farmers in several Chinese provinces are confronting the government over land-ownership rights. They've claimed title to the land they farm in response to what they see as illegal seizures by local governments and developers.

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Here's a sign of change in China. Thousand of farmers in several provinces have issued bold statements in recent days. The farmers claim they own the land they farm, and that's a big deal in a communist country that has lived by collective farming in the past. The farmers say they're responding to illegal seizures of their land by local governments and developers.

Widespread tensions over the issue of land rights appear to be reaching a critical stage in China as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN: In a farmhouse in Shaanxi province's Weinan region, local doctor Liu Dao Ming(ph) stokes his coal stove and puts the kettle on to make tea. Liu says that he and 70,000 local farmers are solidly behind the December 12th statement to the nation. The statement says that the land they sign contracts to farm actually belongs to them permanently to lease, inherit or to allocate as they see fit.

Dr. LIU DAO MING (Local Doctor): (Through translator) Our ancestors lived right here on this land. This land belonged to us originally. Nobody can take it away from us.

KUHN: Liu is one of nearly 300,000 residents who are displaced in the 1950s to make way for a reservoir formed by the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River. Within a few years of the dam's completion in 1959, silt piled up so high in back of the dam that the Yellow River actually flowed backwards and flooded the surrounding countryside. The reservoir was later scrapped and the migrants began to return.

Sixty-nine-year-old Chang Zen Hai(ph) recalls the government giving him a tiny little plot of land to farm.

Mr. CHANG ZEN HAI (Farmer): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: We were left with about a quarter of an acre per person, he says, and it was bad land - salty, sandy and alkaline. You couldn't plant on it. They gave the good land to the army to farm.

Under Chinese law, farm land is collectively owned by villages. But the December 12th statement rejects collective ownership, saying it has allowed local officials to steal thousands of acres to give to their cronies who then rent it to poor farmers.

Villagers here say police have recently arrested several protest organizers. They say they may be charged with incitement to subvert state power, which often results in prison terms of 10 years or more. Dr. Liu says police have been swarming around his village.

Dr. LIU: (Through translator) The government has consistently tried to suppress this movement. It doesn't allow us to organize or to talk about reclaiming our land. To put it harshly, our local government has imposed a state of wide terror.

KUHN: But Liu and his neighbors are not entirely alone. In recent days, farmers in Heilongjiang province in the northeast and Jiangsu province in the east have issued similar statements. The Jiangsu statement mentions the 1949 Communist revolution, which took the land from landlords and gave it back to the peasants. The statements are eloquent but doomed declarations of independence.

Hu Xia Wei(ph) is one of the peasant organizers in Jiangsu.

Mr. HU XIA WEI (Peasant Organizer): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: As for taking back our land, he says, we ordinary folks are powerless. The power is in the local government's hands. They've already built houses on our land. We'd like the land back, but we're not going to get it.

Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says the statement show that Chinese farmers have gotten smarter. He says that they're finally realizing that the government's collectivization of land never had any basis in law, much less, the farmer's own consent.

Professor HU XINGDOU (Economics, Beijing Institute of Technology): (Through translator) In the past, farmers just plead to the local government to return their property and allow them to survive. Now, the farmers have realized that this land was theirs to begin with and that local officials have occupied it by force.

KUHN: Hu adds that if China is ever going to bring its vast countryside into the modern age, it must first give the land to the tillers. As for the farmers, their patience has clearly exhausted.

The Heilongjiang farmers wrote in their declaration: We've had enough of being robbed, of being bullied, of crying out to heaven and earth, and getting no reply.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Shaanxi province, China.

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