BEIJING—Chinese activists pushing for private ownership of farms are preparing for spreading protests to “reclaim” disputed land, intensifying a battle between state control and emboldened farmers.
China's ruling Communist Party keeps farmland under village “collective” ownership, effectively the grip of state officials. Farmers hold usage rights under 30-year leases and only the government can approve converting farmland for factories and urban housing.
But in a volley of protests and petitions in late 2007, farmers in three provinces sought to “reclaim” land lost to development and issued petitions demanding private ownership as a bulwark against corrupt confiscations and meagre compensation.
Wary of protests spreading, the government recently sentenced two organizers—Yu Changwu and Wang Guilin—in the northeast province of Heilongjiang to “labour re-education” (slave-labour prison camps) and temporarily detained farmers in northwest province of Shaanxi, said Beijing-based activists backing the campaigns.
But a similar petition campaign is now underway in southwest China and others are likely to follow in coming weeks and months, raising the likelihood of spreading disputes over land throughout 2008, activists and farmers told Reuters.
“This marks an important shift from asking the government to protect land to the farmers sidelining the government and simply saying, 'This is our land',” said Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based editor who has supported the campaign. “This isn't over yet. There'll be one more effort after another”.
Other campaigns are brewing in western, central and eastern provinces, said Chen and another Beijing-based organiser who requested anonymity.
The Communist Party, which came to power by combining its own fervent beliefs with promises of land for angry farmers, knows how potent that combination can be and might take a much harsher line if protests spread—especially as it seeks to keep stability ahead of Beijing's Olympic Games.
Factories on Farmland
The battlefields for these skirmishes over ownership are often the semi-rural outskirts of expanded towns and cities, where fields are being eaten up by commercial development.
The push for farmland ownership has aligned disgruntled farmers with academics and rights campaigners wielding Internet skills, legal knowledge and fervent hopes of spreading private property rights as a check on state power.
“Farmers have very basic ideas that the land is theirs and has been for generations,” said Chen. “Intellectuals have provided the ideas about private property rights”.
In the city of Zigong in the southwest province of Sichuan, more than 2,000 people have signed a petition demanding recognition that they own land that is being developed as part of an industrial zone, said Liu Zhengyou, a local farmer and organiser. He hopes 10,000 will sign.
“After the (Lunar) New Year ends, we will take the land and issue our petition,” Liu said in a telephone interview.
“For now we just want the land back … Full privatisation would be good for farmers, but you need the right laws and policies to make that work,” Liu said.
Campaigners said similar pushes are likely in other provinces in coming weeks or months as disgruntled farmers and activists use the Lunar New Year holiday to seek broader village support.
“We're trying to create an eventual policy breakthrough,” said the Beijing organiser who demanded anonymity.
The government's top adviser on rural policy, Chen Xiwen, said in January that officials who abuse collective ownership would be punished, but he gave no sign of a fundamental rethink of collective ownership, which is written into the state constitution.
Officials and scholars have also argued that collective ownership prevents even worse abuses of vulnerable farmers and saves scarce farmland needed for food security.
But farmers backing the “reclamations” said strengthening the current rules would not cure chronic corruption, and the government must move to privatisation or endure rising rural unrest.
“Before it was enough to have land to farm, but after losing land to theft and confiscation, we've realised we need our own ownership rights,” said Zhang Qingfu, a farmer in the eastern province Shandong who said he and other villagers were preparing a land “reclamation” push “if conditions allow”.
“The land problem will need a long contest before it's settled,” said the Beijing-based organiser.