Chinese farmers battle against corruption and intimidation in pursuit of coal
A Reuters correspondent describes how farmers in a coal mining region of central China have responded to the theft of their land by unscrupulous entrepreneurs, backed by corrupt local officials and who often employ thugs to beat up local opponents.
Fruits Of Reform Can Be Bitter In Chinese Countryside
22nd December 2008
China's vast brownplains gave birth to the reforms that transformed the nation three decades ago, and yet now Xibaijian village is one of many battlegrounds here where peasant unrest shadows that success. The heart of this metamorphosis has been the hard-worked land, guarded by farmers as a source of food and security but coveted by officials and developers as a source of fast wealth.
Farmers in this dusty village, straddled by coalmines in Anyang county in central China, have become actors in a broader struggle over who wins and loses from economic transformation. To many farmers here, the answer is simple. They spoke of thugs hired by businessmen and officials, battles over land, and officials snatching wealth to salt away in Beijing real estate.
"The government lets crime gangs and middlemen make all the money, and the gangs and middlemen then pay off the government," said Yang Wudong, a farmer and trader who helped organise recent protests against lost land and corruption. "Ordinary people's living standards have risen, but the appetite of the gangs and officials has also grown. If we earn more, they want more."
China's ruling Communist Party this month marks 30 years since economic reforms officially began in 1978 with policies announced in October meant to give farmers a safer stake in the farmland that Deng Xiaoping and successor leaders let them lease, though not own outright. The new policies are intended to give farmers greater scope to lease out their land, still legally under "collective" ownership -- effectively state control -- and higher returns when they give up land.
But days spent around Xibaijian, 540 km (335 miles) southwest of Beijing, show the strains of rural China have much to do with the untethered powers of officials. As China's economic growth slows, those tensions may multiply and erode the stock of political capital built up by its leaders. "Down here on the ground there's so much corruption that all those laws and speeches are ignored," said Zhou Buopian, a rake-thin 57-year-old farmer picking stubble from his field. "They'll steal what they want anyway ... They're not elected, they're chosen from above, and they know it."
"MONEY AND POWER CHASE EACH OTHER'S TAILS"
Anyang county is strewn with remnants of China's most ancient dynasties and with the woes of Henan province, crowded with 65 million of the nation's 750 million farmers and their families. Henan has long been one of China's most troubled regions and is home to many rural petitioners who trek to Beijing seeking justice. But Anyang's cotton and wheat fields are also increasingly criss-crossed by sealed roads, expanding towns and mines and industry -- engines of the growth that has spilt from the country's big cities to its towns and villages.
In Xibaijian, crumbling mud-brick homes of the some 5,000 residents have been giving way to the smarter concrete-and-tile ones, often paid for from work in nearby mines and coke plants. Most citizens say that growth is thanks to the economic reforms backed from the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping. Those reforms took off in the rural heartland where, weary of the failings of Mao Zedong's collective communes, Deng tolerated and then encouraged farmers to divide up fields into holdings leased by farmers from villages.
As the focus of reform shifted to the cities, however, so did much of the growth, and since the 1990s the gulf between urban rich and rural poor has widened. Since 2003, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have sought to ease this imbalance and spread more growth, welfare and opportunity to farmers. Their government abolished agricultural taxes, hated by farmers as a tool for extortionate fees.
But if Xibaijian residents have enjoyed some of the fruits of China's breathless growth, many are far from content. The place has been rife with discord and claims of official corruption.
Last year there was a burst of protests over land seizures for coal mines and plants, according to villagers and accounts on the Chinese internet. A government sign near the village warns of punishment for those who pool money for petitioners to travel to Beijing. Some locals nonetheless went to the capital earlier this year carrying a red banner that declared, "Premier Wen, save us people of Anyang," said Zhou Yonglin, a farmer and businessman who has helped organise the protests. Such protests are common across the country.
"Chinese society, including rural society, is experiencing massive changes," said Wu Yi, an expert on rural development at Central China Normal University in Wuhan. "Farmers' aspirations and expectations are growing, but often the government and how it behaves has not caught up, so farmers turn to central leaders to save them."
Squatting in the back of a village store, the protesters Zhou Yonglin and Yang Wudong offered their own explanation of this paradox of growth with discontent. "When society was poor, there were not so many problems with corruption, because there was nothing much to steal," said Zhou. Yang nodded in agreement. "Money and power always chase each other's tail," he said.
"Who can tell the difference between them anymore?"
"DON'T COME AND TAKE OUR KIDS"
Tensions peaked in Xibaijian last year, when locals fought with thugs they said were hired to seize a patch of land that investors eyed to expand adjacent coal mines. In the first big confrontation, dozens of men were repelled by villagers. But the second time, villagers said, police watched as the thugs roughed up men and women who were blocking the dirt road leading to the disputed land. Officials in Anyang County and Xibaijian would not talk about the conflict on the record.
Zhang Zhide, a silver-haired 72-year-old, said her leg and back were injured in one of the struggles. Now she is confined to her bed. "We don't dare demand anything more," she said. "Just as long as they don't come and take our kids."
But not all China's farmers are so resigned. In Xibaijian, protesters have organised a petition they said collected the red thumb prints of 5,000 locals denouncing official corruption. China's restive farmers increasingly see themselves as citizens with rights, rather than subjects of unaccountable power, wrote Yu Jianrong, a well-known researcher on protest at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"If these problems aren't resolved, they will certainly affect China's rural modernisation and China's social stability and development," he wrote in a recent report. In Xibaijian, some believe broader change is needed to solve their complaints, said Zhou Buopian, the farmer. Tougher land protection rules alone will not solve problems, he said. "There should be rule of law so these crime gangs are eradicated," he said. "Then democratic elections to choose our leading cadres. Then Xibaijian will get better."
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates) © Thomson Reuters 2008 All rights reserved