July 07, 2006

Land seizures provoke growing anger in China

Reuters by Ben Blanchard - Fri Jul 7, 2006

Liu Guilan had hoped to spend the remaining years of her life quietly in her little village on Beijing's outskirts.

Instead, the 64-year-old now lives in fear of a midnight knock from the demolition man.

The water and power to her traditional courtyard house have been cut off since April, and now the local government has issued her an ultimatum to pack up and leave.

"I've lived here through so many hardships already. I'm not going," Liu said, standing in a bedroom bare apart from a bed covered in a dirty sheet and a table with a few personal belongings on it.

"I'm just a poor peasant woman," she added, dabbing away her tears with toilet paper. "I don't seem to have any rights."

As breakneck urban development eats into China's countryside, arbitrary land grabs by officials making exorbitant profits by selling it on to developers have sparked resentment and, in some cases, major social unrest.

Premier Wen Jiabao admitted in March during the annual meeting of parliament that errant local officials were to blame for many of the protests and vowed harsh punishment for those who forcibly seize land from peasants.

Earlier in June, the Ministry of Land and Resources admitted that in some cities more than 60 percent of the commercial land acquisitions since September 2004 had been illegal.

In some places, that proportion had reached 90 percent, it said.

"Such widespread illegal land use is stunning. It means that local officials have plainly ignored the central authorities' instructions on land use," the official China Daily said.

"If this uncontrollable land acquisition goes unchecked, it will deal a fatal blow to our ambition of pursuing sustainable development," the newspaper added.


Liu says she owns the land her small house stands on, and has a tattered deed of title dated 1965 to support the claim.

She used to rent out some of the rooms to migrant workers, but with the power and water cut, that is now impossible.

"I have no other source of income. I have no money. I don't know what to do," Liu said.

Other villagers who have approached the local government say they have met with indifference to their plight, and claim they can find no papers outlining what plans there are for the land.

They fear expensive apartment blocks will be built there and sold off for a big profit, joining the rows of similar projects springing up all over the city and its once rural suburbs to provide modern comfort for a growing middle class.

"We'll get nothing," said one weather-beaten man, who declined to give his name. "We know only how to rely on the land. Once that's gone, where will we go? What will we do?"

Some say that the police and unidentified thugs have been sent to harass residents who, like Liu, have been unwilling to give up their land.

"I was surrounded by five men who tried to force me to sign a piece of paper giving up my house and agreeing to be moved elsewhere," Liu said, standing in the dusty road outside her house.
"They're terrorizing me."

In some parts of China, such land disputes have led to violence, even death.

Last December, police in the southern province of Guangdong opened fire trying to quell a dispute over land taken for a wind power project, killing at least three and maybe up to 20.

And in June, state media reported the stabbing of a village official who advocated greater transparency in local affairs and improved compensation for farmers forced from their land.

Liu has been offered compensation for her house in the form of an apartment in a new development behind her village.

She says she does not want to move in, as the flat on offer is half the size of her present house, and lacks even the most basic facilities.

"There's no sense of community there," said family friend Wu. "There isn't even a balcony."

Wu says he has been trying to get Liu to go to a lawyer, although he doubts any good will come of it. He says the central government which lies just 12 miles away does not seem to care too much about what happens on the peripheries of the city.

"Tiananmen Square is so close, yet this kind of thing can still happen," he said. "She has been very wronged and I can't imagine there will be a happy ending."

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