Rumblings from the heartland
Several days have passed but the atmosphere in Yilong, a village in the Pearl River Delta in Zhongshan, is quiet but still tense from last weekend's clashes between riot police and residents.
The ground around the entrance to the village remains littered with police tape and even the most curious onlookers stop briefly to sneak a look at the burned-out remains of a nearby building.
Violence erupted on November 12 after a long-running conflict over what villagers claim was a land grab by local officials. Villagers had occupied the nearby Jinrui Industrial Park for more than a month in protest over land that they say has been taken illegally from them. The park's four factories closed their doors soon afterwards and their workers still have no idea when operations will resume.
At stake is 800 hectares of former farmland that Dongsheng township sold to nearby Xiaolan for industrial use a decade ago. The land has since been resold and leased out, leaving some 5,000 farmers without fields.
Officials from Yilong, Dongsheng and Zhongshan all declined to comment on the land dispute. The mainland has no formal system of private ownership for rural land - farmers are entitled to use land on co-operatives or communes managed by village committees. But the system is open to abuse, particularly in areas considered valuable to developers, and farmers are often exploited by dishonest officials.
In Yilong last week, there was no disguising the anger that sixtysomething Feng Haipei and many other villagers felt about the way the situation unfolded last weekend.
'Thousands of armed police entered the village, and beat the villagers. They even broke into people's houses,' Feng said. 'We had no idea how many fled or were arrested.'
A worker at a nearby hotel-furniture factory said he saw police take away about half a dozen villagers last Saturday.
But that was not the first time villagers and officials had come to blows in the dispute. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Agriculture, residents said they had had several major confrontations with police and local officials in the preceding decade.
The park occupies a small fraction - about 3 per cent - of the farmland sold to Xiaolan via a Dongsheng development company in 2001. It sits on a block that had since been repurchased by the Yilong community only to be leased out again without the farmers' knowledge.
The original land sale 10 years ago included more than 130 hectares from the village that the development company sold on for about 615,000 yuan per hectare. But the villagers were only paid just over half that rate for their land, or about one-tenth of the going rate for industrial land in Xiaolan and one-sixth of the average price for equivalent blocks in Dongsheng in 2002, according to official plans cited by the Beijing publication, Economic Observer.
'The villagers were cheated - in some cases, intimidated - into signing the sales contract,' said Liang Tangfen, who was a village representative at the time. Liang was dismissed from the post three months ago for leading residents' efforts to reclaim the lost property. He said he didn't initiate or participate in the confrontation, but was very much disillusioned with the government's reaction to the community's complaints.
Twenty-eight households refused to sign the original deal and protested against having their land taken over. Liang said local authorities responded to their protests with violence.
Then, in July 2004, with the help of Zhongshan officials, Yilong bought back 18 per cent of the sold land with the money earned from the land sale. Each household was also given 7,000 yuan for previously sold land.
But four years later, villagers discovered that the repurchased land had been leased out again in 2007 by the village's then party secretary, Zhou Jinhuan, without their knowledge or permission. Zhou had leased the land to Xiaolan for 30 years for an annual fee of 150,000 yuan per hectare. But Liang said the factories in the industrial park claimed they had leased the land for 50 years. 'Our villagers lost the farmland and were given only 700 yuan a year [in compensation],' he said. Liang says the farmers he represents have only about 170 square metres each to farm, which is not nearly enough to feed a family.
According to the central government, the State Council must review any plan to convert more than 35 hectares of farmland for industrial purposes. The villagers say the Yilong village committee got around this rule by claiming that just 32 of the 130 hectares earmarked was farmland.
While officials are now refusing to answer questions about the issue, there was something of an explanation in 2004 when then Dongsheng party secretary Ou Wanhong sent a letter to the affected parties.
Ou said Dongsheng was 1.3 billion yuan in debt and had no money for repayments. Ou didn't specify to whom Dongsheng was indebted or when the vast sums were borrowed, but he insisted that the township had to sell more than three hectares of land each month to repay the money.
Yan Jinming, professor of land management at Renmin University, said the transfer of collectively owned land between villages should be subject to democratic processes and have the support of at least two-thirds of the community's farmers.
Chen Xiwen, who heads the Communist Party's office on rural policy, suggested earlier this year that farmers play a direct role in the development of the land instead of having their land taken over. This, Chen said, would help protect their rights to profit from the development.
'Farmers' land is not protected by law in China,' said Dang Guoying, a senior researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences' Rural Development Institute. 'The government is too powerful and economic goals take priority over justice. Citizens' interests are prone to infringement.'
In Yilong, the villagers' demands were clear: the land must be returned, the illegal practices made public and those responsible punished.
'I am in my 60s and I have nothing to be afraid of,' Liang said.