The dark secret of how local governments in China finance themselves exploded violently to the attention of the public once more in China recently, when hundreds of thugs were hired to beat down an uprising against land grabs in the south. It resulted in two deaths, locals said.
Hired gangsters with armed with clubs, metal bars, and machetes were unleashed on a mostly unarmed crowd of peasants in Taiping Town in Shaotong City of southern China’s Yunnan Province on May 11. The protesters were furious that their property was effectively being stolen by Communist Party officials, as they saw it.
The incident highlighted how dependent local governments are on the revenue from selling land to drive economic development. Residents who have dwelled on the land for decades are driven to fury and desperation when their houses are demolished without reasonable compensation or due process.
What took place in Taiping Town happens regularly across China, and the incident there serves as a case study in land expropriation and the extreme tensions that can result. Apart from the two men allegedly beaten to death, at least 20 villagers were badly injured, according to the website Jasmine Places, which focuses on mass incidents in China.
One of the pictures sent to Jasmine Places is an alarming image of a bloodied villager, sitting on a hospital bed, with a machete lodged in his back, having entered mid-back exited near the shoulder.
Bait and Switch
The forcible land acquisitions in Taiping Town began in 2000 when the local government purchased farmland from some villagers at the very low price of 14,000 yuan per acre ($2,244), and promised to compensate each family a 60 square meter plot of residential land in the near future.
Over a decade passed, however, and no residential land has been given to the villagers, for whom land constitutes their only asset.
“Land is life for us farmers. We watched those tall buildings being erected on our land one after another. But we have become landless peasants,” wrote a local villager, anonymously, on the popular Tianya Internet forum.
“Our lives are desperate. … There’s no place for us to redress our grievances,” the villager wrote.
In protest, villagers set up tents on the disputed land.
At around 5 p.m. on May 11, the town Party secretary, Chi Huancai, as well as several top security officials, led over 200 hired thugs to break them up. They then set about beating and attacking the villagers, called for reinforcements, and continued the fight until midnight. Locals estimate that up to 500 thugs were brought in.
Jia Qiyun, a local resident, died during the conflict, while another villager named Zhuang Hai died in a hospital the following day.
Over 1,000 outraged and aggrieved villagers gathered in front of the local government building on May 13, while Jia’s body sat lifeless in a freezer in the middle of the road.
A Dark Pattern
The series of events in Taiping is only one of the more recent and violent clashes. Similar cases are frequently reported throughout China.
In Xia County of Shanxi Province, for example, 60 villagers were beaten by thugs allegedly acting on behalf of the local government. On May 20 after the beating, 10 peasants were hospitalized in critical condition. The rioting villagers managed to burn an official vehicle during the conflict.
Despite the fact that its own officials carry out these abuses, the Chinese Communist Party is concerned about the resultant unrest.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Chinese regime’s top research institute, said that tens of thousands to over 100,000 “mass incidents” like this erupt each year in China.
Half of them are reportedly caused by land acquisitions and house demolitions. At least 16 cases of death during land disputes were reported by Chinese media last year: some victims were directly beaten to death by hired thugs, while others were crushed by construction equipment.
Some, driven to the edges of desperation, committed suicide, including by self-immolation, to protest.
The state-ownership of land in China has opened an enormous space for the abuse of power, corruption, and secret deals.
But there is little indication that the problem will be going away. Local governments have relied heavily on land-based financing for roughly the last decade: real estate accounts for up to 40 percent of local government revenue, according to China Securities Daily. With the massive increase in local government debt, authorities around China may simply increase their expropriations.
In the case of Taiping Town, the death of villager Jia resulted in no punishment for those who killed him. The death was acknowledged in a short announcement on the local government website, but it said that he had “suddenly collapsed to the ground” during a dispute. It acknowledged, “the family has objected about the cause of Jia’s death,” but then went on to blame them for blocking traffic for several hours.