Rural Unrest on the Rise in China

Peasants relocated to make room for a reservoir in northern China's Hebei province claim local leaders pocketed more than $7 million in compensation funds owed to them. Those who tried to organize a recall vote were bribed, beaten or jailed into submission. The case typifies recent rural protests.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Civil unrest is on the rise in China. Last week in Dongzhou in southern China, police opened fire on villagers protesting the seizure of their land for a power plant. The government says three people were killed. Protesters put the number at 20.

NORRIS: That incident was just one of a number of clashes that have taken place mostly in China's countryside. We're going to take a look at the larger economic and social trends behind the unrest in a few minutes. First, NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to Northern, China where thousands of farmers were kicked off their land to make room for a reservoir.

(Soundbite of dogs barking, roosters crowing)

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

The farmland of North China's Jubei province, not far from where the Great Wall meets the sea, has often suffered from drought. But before the government could build the Danjiangkou reservoir, it had to resettle more than 40,000 residents between 1992 and 1997. Most were ethnic Manchus, who had lived there for generations. The reservoir was completed in 1998.

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KUHN: At a roadside restaurant near the city of Chinwongdau(ph), some of the displaced residents met to tell their stories. Jung Sen Chan(ph), a 63-year-old farmer in a wool coat and worker's hat, spoke first.

Mr. JUNG SEN CHAN (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: `The funds for our resettlement were skimmed by every level of government,' he says. `We were each supposed to receive the equivalent of $1,650, but we only got $1,000.'

According the the Web site of the National Audit Bureau, government audits during the 1990s found that local governments failed to pay out $7.5 million in resettlement funds. Local officials embezzled much of this money, it said, and two of them were convicted and sentenced to jail. Fifty-seven-year-old Lee Fung Chen(ph) says the government resettled her on a scrap of dry land that she couldn't afford to irrigate. So she and her family moved back to the reservoir, where they lived in makeshift shacks until the government tore them down.

Ms. LEE FUNG CHEN (Farmer): (Through Translator) We have no way to live. We have no land and no home. I have an 80-year-old father who's sick. We've got to have a home. Otherwise when he dies, we'll have nowhere to bury him.

KUHN: In desperation, many of the farmers went to Beijing, but the central authorities just referred the problem back to the province. Many of the protesters were once leaders in their rural communities. One of the toughest is 58-year-old Wung Guy Wa(p), who, when she wasn't planting corn and soybeans, used to be head of her local women's federation. Now, with tears running down the creases of her weathered cheeks, she says that in the winter of 2002, local police arrested her and tried to get her to divulge the names of the other protest organizers. When she refused, she says, they threw her in an unheated room in a local jail.

Ms. WUNG GUY WA (Protest Organizer): (Through Translator) I looked up through a gap in the roof and saw the stars and moon clearly. I froze for five days and nights. My feet turned black, and they had to cut my socks off because of frostbite.

KUHN: While protesting in Beijing, the farmers met Zhao Yan, a reporter with China Reform magazine. Zhao wrote an expose on their story. He also told them how farmers in other parts of the country were making use of China's village election law. The law allows farmers to oust village leaders through recall votes. The farmers amassed more than 10,000 signatures in a petition to oust the mayor of Tangshan City, where many of them lived, but to no avail. Wung Guy Wa and her colleagues continue their protests in Beijing.

Hu Xingdou is an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Speaking at a cafe near the school, he says he's pessimistic about the peasants' chances of winning in cases like these.

Mr. HU XINGDOU (Economist, Beijing Institute of Technology): (Through Translator) Farmers don't have real ownership of their land. The land belongs to the state, so they're often not given enough compensation. But it's also because farmers lack the right to express themselves and other democratic rights.

KUHN: China's leadership says improving the life of more than 750 million rural residents is its top priority. It envisions a new socialist countryside, clean, prosperous and well-managed. But it remains to be seen whether Beijing can find the money to provide basic public services in rural areas or give them the political rights to defend their interests. Until then, it's likely that peasant protesters will become better organized, better versed in the law and more aggressive. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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