Lawful resolution of land disputes needed
After putting up a struggle against a land grab in December, in which at least three people were shot dead by police, dozens of villagers from Dongzhou, were detained. Now, having been held incommunicado for six months, 19 will be prosecuted, and convictions will likely see them put behind bars for years.
The sufferings that have visited these ordinary men and women from the remote hamlet in Shanwei , northern Guangdong, cannot be the hallmark of the harmonious society that President Hu Jintao seeks to promote. Sadly, while this and other violent clashes in other parts of the country have prompted Beijing to rein in overzealous land seizures, there are no signs of the authorities abandoning their abrasive approach.
Rights groups say Beijing's edicts have had only a limited impact. Disputes have continued to erupt all over the country, as economic development has made land an even more valuable commodity. Fewer land grabs have caught the attention of overseas media, only because local officials have become more careful in avoiding violent confrontations.
But the authorities have not changed their fundamental attitude of regarding those who stand up for their rights, and those who come to their assistance, as troublemakers. Rights activists, including academics and lawyers, have continued to be harassed by official agents and beaten by thugs.
In the latest development, the All-China Lawyers Association has issued new rules to rein in lawyers who act for protesters. They are warned against contacts with foreign organisations and media, and told to accept the monitoring and guidance of the judicial administration authorities.
It is disappointing that the mainland's supreme regulatory body for the legal profession should be so concerned about lawyers helping their clients to assert their lawful rights. The rule against contacts with foreign media amounts to shooting the messenger and a serious violation of the free-speech rights of lawyers. Instead of warning lawyers against speaking out, the association should be more concerned about protecting legal professionals who have been attacked and illegally jailed for trying to safeguard the constitutional rights of ordinary people. It should be taking prompt measures to urge all sides involved in land disputes to resolve their differences according to the law. Beijing's pledges to promote the rule of law will remain hollow slogans if lawyers cannot protect their own lawful rights.
Some Dongzhou villagers have admitted throwing petrol bombs at police, who responded by firing shots to protect themselves. Strictly speaking, the villagers might have indeed broken the law. But any legal action to be taken against them must consider the social causes of the dispute. The degree of violence that the villagers adopted to protect their land was a reflection of the depth of their grievances. It would be wrong for the authorities to focus only on their militant tactics, but not the strong sense of injustice that turned them into radicals.
For a long time to come, as economic development continues on the mainland, the twin forces of industrialisation and urbanisation will continue to encroach on the countryside. The scale of the problem can only increase, if existing loopholes in land expropriation procedures and compensation arrangements remain unplugged. Clashes can only be reduced by adopting transparent procedures and strengthening legal and judicial supervision to prevent abuse.
To solve the problem at its roots, the mainland authorities must strengthen property rights. That will mean developing a truly independent judicial system, something that today is little more than a distant dream. Meanwhile, farmers must be adequately compensated for losing their land and equipped with new skills so they can make a living by seeking alternative employment. In short, local authorities must find more creative solutions - and be prepared to pay more.