Wed, Mar 01, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Hope draining away for China's angry peasants

AFP , BEIJING

Farmers losing their land to development projects in China are becoming increasingly riotous, but analysts say there is little hope for them as China's economic boom fuels corruption and power abuse.

A slew of violent confrontations between villagers and officials over land seizures have thrown the issue into the spotlight over the past year, with the nation's top leaders identifying the rising unrest as a major concern.

Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) last month warned Communist Party cadres against a "historic error" over illegal land grabs, while a deluge of propaganda in recent weeks has outlined a vision for a new, fairer "socialist countryside."

The protection of farmers' rights and improvement of their livelihoods will likely be a top agenda item during the annual legislative session that begins on Sunday.

Powerful locals

But Wu Guoguang (吳國光), a China specialist at Canada's University of Victoria, said the government was not able to protect farmers' rights because local authorities were too powerful.

With the ongoing collusion between local government officials and property developers, farmers would continue to have little choice but to resort to confrontation in their efforts to seek justice, he said.

"It is a triangular game -- central government, local government and the people," Wu said. "And Beijing will always be on the local officials' side, because the power is in the local governments' hands."

In one of the highest-profile incidents over the past year, police in December shot dead as many as 30 protesters in a confrontation in Dongzhou Village in Guangdong Province over a land dispute.

In another incident in Hebei Province in June, at least six people from Dingzhou Village were killed and scores wounded after the local government deployed hundreds of thugs to beat people who refused to make way for a power plant.

Tip of the iceberg

But these cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

The number of "public order disturbances" in China rose by 6.6 percent to 87,000 last year, while "mass gatherings that disturbed social order" climbed 13 percent, according to government statistics.

China's wealth gap is at the same time getting dangerously high, with the roughly 700 million rural residents having an average income of just US$403 last year, less than one-third of their urban counterparts.

Analysts say a major problem is China's Constitution, which states that farmland is collectively owned, allowing local governments to easily seize land for little or no compensation and sell it to property developers for huge profits.

Last week, Chen Xiwen (陳錫文), a senior Communist Party official, indicated that authorities were considering measures to reform the land acquisition system, but he stopped short of promising to end the government monopoly.

"As long as there are no real property rights over land in China there is no solution to this, because the farmers do not own their land," said Pierre Landry, a political scientist at Yale University.

Few rights

Peasant frustrations are only magnified when they find they have few legal rights, with most local courts rejecting their cases under pressure from local officials.

"Chinese courts ... are under the Communist Party leadership, so they are often manipulated by the desires of the officials," said legal scholar and farmers' rights activist Li Baiguang (李柏光).

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