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Heilongjiang farmers accuse agriculture bosses of raft of crimes
In Heilongjiang a powerful bureau stands accused of theft, extortion, intimidation and making 2.85 million hectares of farmland disappear
Each autumn, happy harvest scenes from Heilongjiang province, the mainland's biggest producer of grain, are broadcast on state television to show the area's contribution to feeding the population.
But behind the uplifting images are the unreported and unseen stories of hundreds of farmers who each year protest and petition against corrupt agricultural officials.
Their main target is the Heilongjiang Agricultural Cultivation Bureau, a grouping of more than 100 state-owned farms that dominates farmland in the northeastern province.
Among the complaints against the bureau are that it has illegally charged farmers fees for using their land , embezzled central government subsidies and held petitioners in illegal jails.
Perhaps the most astonishing charge is that the bureau has managed to make almost half of the cultivated land over which it has control simply disappear from the records, allowing some to secretly profit from this "black land".
The complaints are routinely suppressed by the bureau, which has its own police force, courts and prosecutors. Petitioners have been beaten or locked up and their crops destroyed, according to many locals.
The bureau is the mainland's biggest farming organisation, built up in the 1950s to serve the planned economy under Mao Zedong. It oversees more than 56,000 square kilometres of land in total, and is one of several government departments which run their own judicial systems. Others include the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and, until earlier this year, the notorious Railways Ministry, now being dismantled amid a storm of corruption charges.
Both the bureau and the provincial government declined interview requests by the Post.
Jiang Wei, a writer who published a 200,000-word investigation into the farmland issues in 2011, said that more than 50 farmers from Heilongjiang had come to him for help. Hundreds more had been detained or jailed for petitioning.
"I haven't talked to all the people who shared these problems, but what's for sure is that these problems are common in the whole Beidahuang [a name for the land ruled by the bureau]," said Jiang, who spent more than a year researching and talking to farmers.
He was told that the state encouraged farmers to reclaim land in the 1980s when the nation faced an acute grain shortage.
The bureau promised farmers they would have use of the land they reclaimed for at least 30 years.
However, in the 1990s when both land and grain prices rose, the bureau took the land back to implement what it called "integrated management" and began charging "contracting fees" to farmers to use it.
As the fees soared year on year, farmers complained. At one Daxing farm, the annual fee climbed from an average of 130 yuan per mu (one-fifteenth of a hectare) in 2006 to 380 yuan this year, said farmer Yang Zhiguo. Yang has been beaten up twice by gangs for his petitioning activities since 2011.
"Some farmers who refused to pay the money saw their crops poisoned by gangsters," he said.
Yang called police when he was beaten up, but the case has not been settled.
Hu Xingdou, a Beijing Institute of Technology professor who organised a meeting on Beidahuang corruption issues in July, said about one-third of the existing farmland in Beidahuang was reclaimed by individuals but later taken back from them.
More than 100 farmers contacted him in the hope that their problems would be passed on to higher levels of government. But their hopes have been dashed, said Hu.
Most of the more than 20 farmer representatives at the meeting were detained for about a week after they returned home. One of the oldest among them is still thought to be in police custody after being taken away in the middle of August for alleged "slander" and "causing trouble", several petitioners confirmed.
A large portion of the central government subsidies intended for farmers had been embezzled by bureau officials, petitioners said.
Liu Yuyun, a petitioner from Longzhen farm, said she and her family reclaimed a large area of land in 1995. But in 2003, when the family had still not earned enough to cover the costs of taking over the land, they were asked to plant trees on the site.
This decision was part of the government's campaign to turn farmland back into forests, in order to mitigate ecological damage caused by farming.
According to central government policies, subsidies for tree planting should have been allocated from 2003. "But we haven't got a penny," Liu said.
She said 80 households on her farm were asked to give up their land for forestation, but none had received subsidies.
It will take 50 years for the trees to grow big enough to be used for timber, which means the family cannot earn money from them until her grandchildren grow up. She now lives on her pension while her husband and child do odd jobs to make a living.
Liu Jie, a 61-year-old woman who has petitioned for the past 17 years, said the bureau and provincial government had also jointly under-reported the area of cultivated land. This allows many farm leaders to pocket the contracting charges for the unreported land - or "black land" as locals call it.
According to its own records the bureau owns 2.85 million hectares of cultivated land, but local farmers estimate that an area equal in size is "black land" and not reported.
Yang said they came to this estimate because the central government's subsidies for crop growers in Beidahuang had been halved.
"The sum of money allocated by the central government is based on the size of the farmland reported by the province, but the provincial government has to divide this up for each mu of land, including the 'black land'," he explained.
Jiang said the bureau's leaders had admitted this to him, saying farmers did not receive the subsidies due to them because the central government, unaware that there was much more farmland than was reported by the bureau, allocated money only for the 2.85 million hectares the bureau claimed to have.
"Beidahuang is an odd egg with integrated functions of the party, government, company, police, prosecutors and courts. An odd egg left by the planned economy, like the former Railways Ministry," he said.
Hu, the professor, said central authorities had turned a blind eye to the Beidahuang problems largely because it was a strategically important source of grain to the country.
Several of the bureau's former directors have even been promoted to the deputy governorship of Heilongjiang.
It's not just the region's fertile dark soil, then, that leads Hu to describe it as "one of the blackest places in China".