Farmers pay a heavy price in victory over factories

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2006, 12:00am

Nearly a year after the village of Huaxi in Zhejiang province was rocked by a massive riot against the government, the target of villagers' anger - chemical factories built on illegally taken farmland - lie empty, a rare victory for the farmers.

Yet Si Xiaoyan , 31, is paying a heavy price for that victory.

'I miss him,' she said, tears rolling down her face. Her 31-year-old husband, Liu Huirong, was jailed for five years in January over the April 10 riot in which up to 30,000 villagers drove 1,500 police and officials out of the village in hand-to-hand combat.

It was a humiliating climbdown for authorities in Dongyang , the local town, who had arrived before dawn to tear down roadblocks put up by farmers to disrupt production at 13 factories they accused of poisoning water and crops, causing sickness, miscarriages and stillbirths.

Like the relatives of seven others jailed in January, Ms Si said her husband was innocent, implicated by a ninth defendant, Wang Xiwang , who walked free. Sitting beside her in the ground floor of a four-storey village house, Liu's 58-year-old father, Liu Rongtian , smokes and sips tea. Then he says: 'For us, nothing is over.'

Ten months later, anger still runs high in Huaxi - anger over lost farmland, an unfair court case and widespread torture by police.

The hated chemical factories might be shuttered, metal gates pulled across driveways, windows open onto empty production halls, but villagers remain mistrustful.

'We don't trust them not to put the factories back in. We have been cheated by the government for so long,' said Wang Xiaofan , whose brother, Wang Liangping , was jailed for rioting. Both Mr Wang and Ms Si have appealed against the sentences.

The case of Huaxi also illustrates that even when farmers win, they lose. Infuriated by the disobedience, Dongyang authorities hit back hard, carrying out mass arrests. Liu was the first, arrested on April 19. Ms Si speculated that this was why he received the heaviest sentence. Others were jailed for up to two years, while the rest given suspended sentences after months in custody.

Gathered together in the home of one of the jailed villagers, former detainees showed scarred wrists, ankles and backs, the result of what they said was months of torture in police custody.

Young farmer Wang Fagen , dressed in a brown suit, cupped his right ear and bent over to listen, partially deaf after beatings, he said. Burly plastics recycler Jiang Yonggen , arrested on May 25, said he was regularly deprived of sleep and food for days in a row and beaten by other prisoners in the police station at Dongyang.

He was forced to do the 'aeroplane', suspended by his wrists tied behind his body. 'I didn't want to live any more,' he said.

A Dongyang police spokesman rejected the allegations, saying conduct in stations was monitored. 'If you don't believe me, come and look for yourself,' he said.

The court case is another sore point. 'They know what they did in court was wrong,' said Wang Xiaofan. 'We were even told so by one official. He said, 'If you're not guilty, then the government is. And the government can't be guilty'.'

Wang Tianjun is angry that he has lost about 2,000 square metres of farmland, receiving less than 100 yuan in compensation. The mainland lacks laws allowing farmers to get back land handed over for industrial purposes.

'Life is hard now. I only have two fen [about 130 square metres] of land to live off,' he said.

Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, national policy has consistently favoured industrialisation over agriculture, and experts say farmers are fighting a losing battle in the face of breakneck economic growth.

Land is often taken illegally by officials who strike deals with developers, offering little or no compensation in return. Farmland is collectively owned on the mainland, making it possible for officials to bypass farmers.

While accurate figures are hard to come by, Ministry of Agriculture experts quoted by scholars say farmers have been cheated out of 2 trillion yuan since 1978, when the economic reform policy launched a second wave of industrialisation. Up to 70 million farmers may have been dispossessed, experts say.

'Illegal land-taking pretty much occurs everywhere in China. The thing is how to stop it, and this is a critical issue that the leadership faces,' said Li Ping , Beijing representative of the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute.

He said the mainland's legal framework was still weak. 'On a national level I think the first and most important thing is to move forward and give farmers legal rights.'

Ms Si, facing years of hardship with the family breadwinner jailed, just wants her husband back. She fears the effect of her husband's jailing on their six-year-old son, Liu Yujie .

'This September he starts primary school, and already the other children have begun to tease him that his father is a criminal,' she said, the tears coming again. 'Their parents all know he's innocent, but children can be cruel.'