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In China, Anger Spreads Over Government Land Grabs

Dec 20, 2011
Originally published on December 20, 2011 3:45 pm

Residents of the southern Chinese village of Wukan have been in open rebellion against the local government over land seizures. The village has been sealed off by police and paramilitary troops. Meanwhile, nearby villages also accuse corrupt officials of selling off their land, and anger is growing. Louisa Lim was one of the few journalists to enter the besieged village of Wukan.

As we travel through the village of Wukan, the motorbike driver waves at a swath of green fields and says, "It's all been sold."

These words are repeated again and again as we hurtle around the village. The residents here accuse local officials of selling 6.5 square miles of their land to developers to fill government coffers. They say it happened without compensation for the villagers, who didn't even realize their land had been sold.

"We used to survive on our land," says my driver. "Now we have nothing left."

The villagers in Wukan have been protesting for days. They drove out local authorities and set up barricades at the edge of the village. Police, meanwhile, have sealed off the village. As a result, villagers are having to sneak in supplies, including chickens.

The villagers have blocked the roads with tree trunks and covered the pavement with broken glass and piles of bricks to throw, should the authorities move in.

So far, four villagers have been named as criminal suspects. One died in police custody. Another, Lin Zulian, says the village can't back down now.

"I will not regret it, even if I die for the interests of the villagers," Lin says. "It is the party's obligation and everybody's obligation to fight corruption. To do so, we must use the weapons provided by the legal system to fight to the end."

Lin is not a natural rebel. He joined the Communist Party in 1965 and was a village official for eight years. But he can no longer stand by and watch.

"It has been 20 years of loss, and it is not just the villager's loss," Lin says. "It is besmirching the face of China's Communist Party."

At the village square, thousands of people, both young and old, gather to shout slogans. It is an extraordinary sight in China.

They yell, "Down with corruption!" But they also say, "Long live the Communist Party!"

The villagers emphasize they don't want to overthrow the Communist Party. They're just against corrupt local officials, and they think the central government can save them.

Land Seizures In Neighboring Villages

That's what Wang Wentao, who's watching the rally, had been hoping, too. But he was imprisoned twice after trying to petition the central government about the plight of his village.

He's from Xincuo, six miles away, where a plot of land the size of 37 soccer fields has been requisitioned by local officials. Wang says Wukan's tactics wouldn't work in his village.

"We couldn't do this because too many people have been bought off by our local village chief," Wang says. "He won people over by paying them."

And there is a clear warning not to follow Wukan's lead. The local television channel is on a constant loop with footage that accuses Wukan's representatives of, among other things, organizing riots and disrupting public order.

In Longguang village, also known as Longtou, just four miles away, farmers show me the land they said was stolen from them 16 years ago.

It's a vast plot the size of 55 soccer fields, which the farmers claim was protected farmland. It's never been built upon, although a large gray wall enclosing the land was erected.

In September, about a thousand angry villagers knocked down the wall as a first step toward reclaiming their land. They remember that day with pride — and now fear.

"Officials said we knocked the wall down illegally and we are an illegal organization," says one man, who did not want his name used because he feared repercussions. "Now they want to arrest our village representatives. We are very scared."

Another villager, who also asked for anonymity, emphasizes that the problem is not isolated.

"The whole township is like this. Every village's land has been sold off by its officials," he says, and most residents can reel off lists of villages with their own stories of uncompensated land seizures.

In recent years, land sales have made up an increasing portion of local government revenues, by some estimates as much as 70 percent last year.

So the anger at these land grabs is not just local — it's national. Land seizures are one of the biggest sources of discontent.

Official figures from Xinhua news agency show more than 40 million Chinese farmers have lost land, with 2 million more being dispossessed every year.

The majority of those landless farmers, 60 percent, now have trouble making a living. Here in Wukan, this issue has come to a head. And because so many villages have their own grievances, concessions by one local authority would only increase the pressure on others.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In China, protests have erupted in the southern village of Wukan. Residents there accuse the local government of seizing their land and selling it for profit. The town has been sealed off by police and paramilitary troops. More protests are planned for tomorrow.

NPR's Louisa Lim was one of the few journalists to enter the besieged village. She sent this report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It's all been sold, says the motorbike driver, waving at a huge swathe of green fields, as we drive through Wukan. These words are repeated again and again. The villagers here accuse local officials of selling six-and-a-half square miles of land to boost government coffers. They say it happened without compensation for the villagers, who didn't even realize their land had been sold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We used to survive on our land, says my driver. Now we have nothing left.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN)

LIM: Chickens are smuggled in for food at the villagers' barricade. Because police have sealed off the village, residents are having to sneak in supplies. The villagers have blocked the roads with tree trunks, and strewn them with broken glass and piles of bricks to throw should the authorities move in. So far, four villagers have been named as criminal suspects. One has died in police custody. Another of those, named Lin Zulian, says they can't back down now.

LIN ZULIAN: (Through translator) I will not regret, even if I die for the interests of the villagers. It is the party's obligation and everybody's obligation to fight corruption. To do so, we must use the weapons provided by the legal system to fight to the end.

LIM: Lin Zulian is not a natural rebel. He joined the Communist Party in 1965, and was a village official for eight years. But he can no longer stand by and watch.

ZULIAN: (Through translator) It has been 20 years of loss, and it is not just the villager's loss. It is besmirching the face of China's Communist Party.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

LIM: At the village square, thousands of people, young and old, gathered to shout slogans, an extraordinary sight in China. They yell, down with corruption, but also long live the Communist Party. They're planning a big march on Wednesday. But these villagers emphasize they don't want to overthrow the Communist Party. They're just against corrupt local officials, and they think the central government can save them.

WANG WENTAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: That's what Wang Wentao, who's watching the rally, had been hoping, too. But he was imprisoned twice after trying to petition the central government about his village's plight. He's from Xincuo, six miles away, where a plot of land the size of 37 soccer fields has been requisitioned. Wang says Wukan's tactics wouldn't work in his village.

WENTAO: (Through translator) We couldn't do this, because too many people have been bought off by our local village chief. He won people over by paying them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: And this is another warning not to follow Wukan's lead. The local television channel is on a constant loop. It accuses Wukan's representatives of organizing riots and disrupting public order.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: In Longguang village, just four miles away, farmers take me to see the land they said was stolen from them 16 years ago. It's a vast plot the size of 55 soccer fields. It's never been built upon. In September, a thousand angry villagers knocked down the surrounding wall to reclaim it. They remember that day with pride and fear.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through translator) Officials said we knocked the wall down illegally and that we're an illegal organization. Now they want to arrest our village representatives. We are very scared.

LIM: That was a villager who asked for his name to be withheld, for fear of the consequences. The anger at land grabs is not just local. It's national. Official figures show more than 40 million Chinese farmers have lost land, with two million more being dispossessed every year. Here in Wukan, it's come to a head. And the fact that so many villages here have their own grievances could push the authorities towards a hard-line solution. Louisa Lim, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.