FUZHOU, China -- A half-dozen policemen burst into Lin Zhengxu's
home and grabbed him as he awoke from an afternoon nap. After beating and kicking him,
family and neighbors recalled, the policemen immobilized Lin's arms by pulling his shirt
halfway over his head. Then they tried to carry him off to jail.
But the police had not counted on Lin's friends and neighbors. After years of fighting
back against the government's seizure of their rice paddies and vegetable plots, they
fought to help the man leading their battle. Neighbors rushed the policemen, witnesses
recounted, yanked Lin away and spirited him into hiding. Within three days of the police
raid, family members said, Lin had made his way to Beijing, nearly 1,000 miles north of
this steamy city on the East China Sea.
For Lin, the champion of Shishan village on Fuzhou's northwestern outskirts, the escape
was a rare victory during years of campaigning against what farmers here say was an
illegal land grab by local Communist Party officials and government authorities. Using
courts, petitions and appeals to officials at all levels, Shishan's peasants have fought
in vain for a decade to get compensation for 200 acres of rich farmland they maintain was
unfairly confiscated by local authorities and sold for development.
"It's corruption," declared Huang Jinchun, 36, whose family lost a third of
an acre in Shishan and, he said in an interview, has yet to receive a penny's worth of
compensation. "They just took our land and put the money into their pockets."
The 8,000 people of Shishan have waged one of the longest fights in China over such
confiscations. But their struggle has found echoes all over Fuzhou, the surrounding Fujian
province and the country. As China's headlong development pits farmers against developers
allied with local officials, the peasants and other rural landowners who still make up 60
percent of China's 1.3 billion people increasingly have tried to resist.
The Construction Ministry said it received three times as many complaints in the first
quarter of this year as in the same period last year. By the end of June, Deputy Minister
Fu Wenjia told the Beijing News that 4,000 groups and more than 18,600 individuals had
lodged petitions over allegedly illicit land transfers.
Farmers have also taken their complaints to the street. Hundreds lined up bicycles and
rickshaws to block traffic in a Beijing suburb on Aug. 20, protesting the seizure of land
by a state-owned development company building high-end villas for foreigners and wealthy
Chinese seeking to escape the capital's downtown pollution.
In a country where peasants have traditionally played a large role and helped propel
the Communist Party to power, the farmers' cause has found wide support in the central
government, at least according to official declarations.
The Ministry of Land and Resources said it disciplined officials involved in about
168,000 illegal land deals last year. The party's Central Committee announced last month
after a four-day meeting that it had expelled the former land and resources minister, Tian
Fenghsan, after a finding by the party that he took $600,000 in bribes. Premier Wen
Jiabao, in his annual report in March, vowed to "resolutely put an end to illegal
acquisition and use of farmland."
An Unbalanced Fight
As Lin's rescue demonstrated, however, resistance to land grabs in China's 34 provinces
has sometimes veered into violence, raising the specter of popular rural unrest that has
haunted China's rulers throughout history.
Farmers pushed from their land on an island in the Pearl River in southern China have
repeatedly clashed with Guangzhou police in recent months. The New York-based organization
Human Rights in China reported Sept. 1 that 15 people were injured in a clash Aug. 1 at a
factory in the Fuzhou suburb of Cangshan between police and protesters who said their
property had been illegally seized.
"The situation of peasants being deprived of their land is very serious in
China," said Li Baiguang, director of the Beijing Qimin Research Center. Li, who has
studied land seizures in Fujian and other rural provinces, added, "If the interests
of the peasants cannot be properly protected and the conflicts cannot be settled, Chinese
society might suffer from turbulence."
It is an uneven battle. Party and government officials at the village, county, township
and provincial levels use their power to exploit provisions in Chinese law that allow land
confiscation in the name of the public interest. They retain a monopoly on deciding the
public interest and the compensation.
The China Daily newspaper cited official estimates that nearly 10,000
square miles of farmland were transformed by development in 2003. Rice paddies became
factories. Cabbage patches became apartment compounds. Wheat fields became golf courses.
The land lost by farmers around Qingkou, a formerly rural town on Fuzhou's southern
edge, became a stretch of factories making cars and car parts. A dun-colored stone wall
has been erected to close in acre upon acre of gleaming new plants and row upon row of
newly produced delivery vans in what once was known as the "home town of
Officials from Minhou County, which encompasses Qingkou, promised when they confiscated
the land in 1998 that farmers would receive between $4,000 and $5,000 each for their tiny
plots and that many would find good jobs in the factories, local peasant activists said.
But the most anyone received was $150, they said. And because of a struggle over
compensation that had become bitter by the time the factories opened, local peasants
seeking jobs said they were passed over in favor of more compliant migrant workers.
Xiao Xiangjin, a farmer and correspondent for China Reform magazine, took up the
peasants' cause as soon as it became clear they would not be given the compensation they
were promised. He petitioned the courts. He petitioned the county government. He
petitioned the provincial party leadership. According to his family, he also went to
Beijing and petitioned whomever he could get to listen.
Perhaps most irritating to local officials, he claimed that much of the compensation money
that was never paid to the peasants was invested in the new factories by local officials
for their own profit.
The reaction was not long in coming. Police came to arrest Xiao two years ago as he
slept at 1 a.m., family members recalled. He sneaked out the back and jumped over a wall
to escape, they said, hiding for several months until official anger died down.
But authorities still had their eyes on him. He was searched and questioned at Fuzhou
International Airport last April as he left for Beijing. The day after he returned, April
5, Xiao was arrested on his way to work and sent to a labor camp for political
reeducation, his family said. Twenty days after the arrest, the family received an
official notice saying he had been sentenced to a year because he had entertained
prostitutes four times in his home and office at Qingkou.
A colleague of Xiao's who sometimes accompanied him to Beijing, Wu Zhong Kai, was also
arrested in July, neighbors said. As a result, the protest movement has been left
leaderless and peasants appear cowed for the moment.
Xiao's family and neighbors were interviewed outside their town and declined to allow
their names to be published for fear of retribution. "Without a leader, what can we
do?" one of them asked.
Officials in Shishan and Qingkou, contacted by telephone, said they did not know enough
about the land seizures to comment.
But a low-level Communist Party cadre caused a national sensation nearly two months ago
by publishing an open letter accusing his superiors of blocking attempts to investigate
similar land seizures in another suburb of Fuzhou. Within days, the letter was pulled from
Web sites and the government-controlled press was ordered to stop reporting on it. The
Fuzhou government said the official, Huang Jingao, had violated party rules. It ordered
him to proceed with a self-examination of his errors, which a declaration said were caused
Individualism was a goal of the well-to-do professionals who, in the 1990s, built about
165 luxury houses on Xiao Guwei, an island in the Pearl River where it flows through
booming Guangzhou 300 miles southwest of here. No two houses were the same, and most
enjoyed serene views of the murky river that belied their nearness to the busy city
"It used to be so pretty," said Xie Rongfu, 43, a computer whiz who built a
five-bedroom home overlooking the Pearl. "From a boat, you could see cows and goats.
That natural beauty is why I bought the land to build a house."
Since then, Guangdong province's party secretary, Zhang Dejiang,
endorsed Xiao Guwei as the site for his signature project: a $2.4 billion campus for
Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to be called University Town. To make way for
dormitories and classrooms, Xie's home and most of the others like it have been condemned.
The island is now dotted not only with new buildings, but also with the debris of
demolished dream homes.
Since last October, when construction began in earnest, about 10,000 farmers also have
been forced to relocate, their shacks bulldozed and their land seized. Many peasants,
refusing to leave, clashed repeatedly with police, who used dogs and helicopters to break
up protests during the clearing operation. A protest leader, Guo Zhihua, was jailed.
Liang Xufeng, 29, a successful landscaper who lost his island home, acknowledged that
the farmers' lot was worse than his. Although they get help buying a new apartment, he
said, the peasants have been left without land, and thus without a livelihood.
But Liang had his own shock recently when he returned from a business trip with his
wife to nearby Dongguan. Police and demolition crews had destroyed his house during his
Another resident, Chu Jiaquan, 42, an art professor who was known as Ken when he lived
in San Jose, said he spent 10 years having his dream home built and filling it with art
objects. He felt lucky, he said, because the other half of his two-home building was
occupied by his former art professor and mentor.
Now that half has been gutted and the professor is gone, despite court cases and
multiple appeals by lawyers in Guangzhou and Beijing. Authorities have condemned Chu's
half as well, but so far it has escaped demolition because, Chu believes, he is a U.S.
citizen. He has joined his neighbors in a public relations and court battle that they say
they will not abandon even after their homes are rubble.
"It's not the money," Chu explained. "It's the way they treat us."
Guangzhou authorities have responded that there is nothing illegal about seizing land
to build University Town and that they are offering fair compensation to homeowners as
well as to poor farmers.
But Liang, echoing others' complaints, said he had been offered $280,000 in
compensation for a house with a market value several times that amount. Moreover, he and
other homeowners expressed the belief that authorities, despite their declarations now,
will end up selling confiscated riverbank land to developers at ultra-high prices.
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.