Violent Protests Sparked by Land Seizures in Guangdong

Guangdong is China's wealthiest province and the chief engine of the country's growing export machine. But it has also been the site of several recent violent clashes between farmers and police over seizures of farmland for commercial development. The most recent was on January 15 in the village of Panlong.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

China's leaders are worried enough about these ongoing riots and protests in the country's rural areas that they are talking publicly about it. The unrest is increasingly found in China's wealthiest regions. In the latest incident, several people were injured when police battled villagers earlier this month in a prosperous region of Southern China. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, reporting:

It's an apparently peaceful scene that greets visitors to Panlong village. Locals mill about at a riverside market as a merchant guts and scales fresh fish. The village is in Guangdong province's Pearl River Delta. Just north of Hong Kong, this subtropical province is China's richest. A magnet for foreign investment, and the engine of the country's booming export machine. Factories and industrial parks here loom above fish ponds and fields of bananas and sugar cane. But the fear here becomes evident when a visitor asks about the events that came to a head on January 14th. Villagers speaking at a nearby clothing market declined to give their names out of fear of arrest.

(Soundbite of a man speaking Chinese)

KUHN: The government was supposed to give villagers $20,000 an acre for the farmland it requisitioned three years ago, says one farmer, but village officials pocketed more than half of it, he says. When farmers protested by blocking a local highway, riot police attacked them with truncheons. Now, he says, the village is sealed off at night, and villagers are barred from leaving their homes. A report by the official Xinhua news agency confirmed the land dispute, but said that nobody was killed in Panlong, and only five people, including two policemen, were injured when farmers threw rocks and fireworks. Two other villagers disputed this account.

(Soundbite of women speaking Chinese)

KUHN: The police were beating people, these women said. They injured over a hundred, and killed one. It was a 13-year-old girl. The government said that she died of a heart attack, they added, but they're just deceiving people. Late last month, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao warned that illegal government land grabs and inadequate compesation for farmers were sparking cases of mass unrest, as remarks were published on Friday. Analysts point out that a decade ago, most rural protests were about taxes in the country's agricultural heartland.

Now, they're increasingly about rural land acquisitions in China's wealthy coastal provinces, such as Guangdong. The worst of the recent incidents in Guangdong occurred on December 6th, when police opened fire and killed at least three farmers protesting a land-grab in Duomjo(ph) village. Guo Feixiong is a Guangdong-based lawyer and activist.

Mr. GUO FEIXIONG (Lawyer and Activist, Guangdong, China): (Through translator) Guangdong has the highest land prices in the country, and its demand for land is greater than other provinces. The government here requisitions land thousands of acres at a time.

KUHN: Police recently released Guo, more then three months after they arrested him for his involvement in protests in Taishi village, not far from the provincial capitol of Guangdong.

(Soundbite of drums)

Like Panlong village, Taishi village appears normal on the surface. At one intersection, a pharmacy, beauty parlor, and pool hall serve customers, while across the street, a piledriver sinks the foundations for yet another new factory. But stout men in camoflouge fatigues patrol the village's streets, speaking into walkie-talkies.

(Soundbite of men speaking on radios in Chinese)

KUHN: Last year, residents of Taishi village attempted a landmark recall vote to oust village leaders, who they say illegally sold their land. The villager's recall committee was forced to disband, and riot police clashed with protesting farmers. Village security forces attacked several activists, lawyers, and journalists. Among them was Professor I-Xao Mihn(ph), a gender studies teacher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong.

Professor I-XAO MIHN (Gender Studies Sun Yat-sen University, Guangdong, China): (Through translator) Taishi is a reminder to us about peasant's right to participate. Development requires everyone's participation. Just because you have capitol to invest doesn't give you the right monopolize development, or take away other's rights to develop.

KUHN: Guangdong's governemnt appears to be shifting its policies in response to the clashes. The province's governor, Zhang Dejiang, warned in December that no land requisitions could proceed until farmers had been properly compensated. He threatened to sack any official who ignores these rules and triggers unrest. But less than a month after those remarks, the violence erupted in Panlong village. Residents there say they're waiting to see if the governor delivers on his promise.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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