云浮, 汕尾, 太石 and other holiday places

Periodically, I write about stuff in China that has little at first glance to do with making dance and art. Mostly my focus is centered on Guangdong as this is where I live when I am in China. My art is primarily concerned with the destitution of humanity, and I think there is little more destitute than for someone to have their entire life, history, home, means of eating and earning a living stolen from them by cadres who are no better than imperial thugs reigning over their personal fiefdoms. The Guardian had an excellent article this weekend on rural land-grabs and peasant protests, specifically in 云浮 Yunfu, 汕尾 Shanwei, and 太石 Taishi in Guangdong Province.

Among the most explosive books in recent years was an exposé of torture, murder and exploitation of peasants by brutal local officials. A Survey Of Chinese Peasants, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, was quickly banned by the authorities, who feared it might spark unrest, but pirate copies continue to be widely circulated and an English version – retitled Will The Boat Sink The Water – has recently been published. The authors lay it out plainly: “It is safe to say that the edifice of China’s industry is built from the flesh and blood of toiling peasants and urban development was achieved through their pain and sacrifice.”

— The Guardian

The big steal

Violent protest is breaking out across China. At its root is resentment that the country’s astonishing new wealth is based on a shameless land grab – and millions of peasants are the losers. Some rebels defied the authorities to tell Jonathan Watts their stories.

When China’s economic miracle caught up with Mrs Wang’s cabbage patch, she was having her hair done in a neighbouring village – too far away to hear the township official’s bellowed orders, “You have one hour to harvest your crops and then the bulldozers move in.” So by the time she found out what was going on and rushed to the site, the fields her family had farmed for generations were already being churned up by mechanical diggers.

She was distraught. But with hundreds of armed police and security guards surrounding the area, there was nothing that she – and the hundreds of other villagers who lost their land that day – could do, except stand by and watch helplessly as their property was claimed for development. “Many villagers were sobbing. I wanted to cry, too, but the tears wouldn’t come out,” Mrs Wang recalls. “I was so furious.” Six months later, the lame 60-year-old peasant – who had never been in trouble before – was in prison, charged with fomenting social unrest.

President Hu Jintao has probably never heard of Mrs Wang, but the story of her transformation – from a placid, hard-working peasant to an angry, desperate and landless protester – will be alarmingly familiar. The past year has seen what is probably the biggest surge of rural violence since the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. In Shanwei, Guangdong province, paramilitary police killed three villagers to put down a demonstration by more than 1,000 people. In Dingzhou, Hebei province, seven people were killed by guns and bombs in a battle between villagers and gangs hired by developers. In Qianjin, Inner Mongolia, several hundred villagers took the local communist party chief hostage. In Huankantou, Zhejiang province, dozens of people were injured when villagers torched police cars and used staves and knives to drive off more than 1,000 riot police.

In this and countless other cases, the spark for the conflict was the same: land seizures that made local officials rich and left dispossessed peasants fuming about injustice. This is the dark side of China’s spectacular economic development. In a shocking admission earlier this year, the director of law enforcement in the Land Ministry, Zhang Xinbao, said there have been more than a million cases of illegal land use in the past six years. Sometimes it is little more than armed robbery as police and gangsters use force to drive people off their property. More often, it is fraud, when local officials – bribed by developers – cheat the farmers of fair compensation.

Such is the concern in the central government that prime minister Wen Jiabao warned earlier this year that the country is at risk of committing a “historic error” over land. History and demographics suggest he is right to be alarmed. It was disgruntled peasants who propelled Mao Zedong to power in 1949. Rural dwellers still make up about two-thirds of the country’s 1.3 billion population. Upset this group and you risk the wrath of an eighth of the world’s people.

Whether complicit or helpless, the one-party state is overseeing one of the biggest thefts in world history: the seizure of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. To try to find out what this means for China, I visited Mrs Wang’s home and several other villages in Guangdong – the richest, most open province in China and the battleground for some of the most violent land disputes.

What follows is an incomplete picture, drawn largely through interviews with dispossessed peasants and those who support them. It was unavoidable. Apart from one brief official statement, the Guangdong authorities did not respond to requests for interviews and information. Instead, I was detained by the police almost as soon as I arrived in Mrs Wang’s village, and local people were warned that they had broken the law by talking to a foreign journalist. At least two rural activists were put under house arrest to prevent them from speaking to me. But others were so desperate to appeal to the outside world that they took the risk of sneaking out of their villages at midnight, being interviewed through the early hours, and then returning just before dawn. Others passed messages and pictures through intermediaries, who agreed to meet in parks where they could see if any of us were being followed. In most cases, we had to speak by phone – frequently switching pre-paid sim cards because of fears that the police might be listening in. Local officials boasted that they knew the contents of my private telephone calls. All of the villagers who spoke asked that their real names should not be used because they fear retribution from the authorities. This, in the most open province in China.

For more than 25 years, Guangdong has been at the forefront of China’s spectacular transformation. In 1979, its port city of Shenzhen was chosen as the site of the country’s first economic development zones, allowing in a flood of overseas capital and ideas. It was also here that Deng Xiaoping launched his famous southern expedition in 1992, when he urged the nation to follow Guangdong’s example in opening up. Reform, he said, should not “proceed slowly like women with bound feet, but blaze a trail and press forward boldly”. The economic boom since then has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty, but opened up a dangerous gulf in living standards.

Spend just a day in the Pearl River delta and you can see the results in towering skyscrapers, new expressways, stunning neon illuminations and seemingly endless rows of factories – almost all recently built on farmland – that have made Guangdong the workshop of the world. But this area has another nickname – China’s wild south – which hints at the grimmer aspects of breakneck development: land seizures, organised crime, prostitution, ultra-materialism and a filthy environment that has left cities shrouded for most of the year in a yellowish haze. Most peasants in Guangdong now work in factories or construction sites. Many villages have become industrial zones.

The province’s population is now the wealthiest in the country. In terms of sexual mores, business trends and burgeoning social inequality, Guangdong is ahead of the curve. What happens here today is often what will happen in the rest of the country tomorrow. That is why the government is so alarmed that greater riches have led to greater unrest.

Mrs Wang is a loser in the turmoil. A woman of the dark south China soil, she is not easily moved to anger. Like her parents, grandparents and their grandparents, she was born in Yunfu – a rural town about two hours’ drive east of the provincial capital, Guangzhou. She was a small child during the civil war when Mao Zedong’s communist party seized power from the nationalists in 1949. As a teenager, she saw neighbours die of dropsy during the famines that followed the Great Leap Forward – a disastrous period of precipitate industrialisation in the late 1950s. In middle age, she lived through the horrors of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when children turned on parents and village fought with village.

When the economic reforms began in 1979, she and her fellow villagers believed the worst was past. Instead, a quarter of a century later, economic development has prompted what she describes as the most harrowing experience of her life.
Mrs Wang’s village – Xiangyang – is one of the most backward but beautiful communities in Guangdong. Set among green hills, its fields yield shallots, garlic, cabbages and rice. But years of development have brought the boundaries of the nearest town – Yunfu town – creeping ever closer, until the day in September 2004 when town officials seized 132,000 square metres of land from Xiangyang and three other villages. Ostensibly it was for a new municipal fire station, but the developers grabbed extra land so that they could profit, too, from the construction of a car showroom.

A shaky video film taken that day shows how powerless the villagers were against the army of bulldozers and trucks that tore up their crops and dumped rocks on the fields so that they could never again be reploughed and reseeded.

Normally a pillar of rural society, Mrs Wang was so incensed that she let rip at the deputy chief of the district. “This is illegal. You have no humanity. Even the Japanese were not this bad. When they invaded, we at least had food and land. But now, you take it away from us.” She carried on voicing her outrage even as police arrested other farmers, and on into the night as the four affected villages gathered to decide how to lodge the first formal complaint they had ever made against a higher authority. She kept on protesting in the weeks that followed, first outside the township government office in Yunfu, then on the steps of the provincial headquarters in Guangzhou and finally – after the longest journey of her life – to the central government in Beijing.

For the residents of the four villages in Yunfu, the loss of land was a calamity – wiping out all the gains they had made in the early days of China’s economic reforms. When rural collectives were broken up in 1981, every villager in Xiangyang was given a little over half a mu (333 square metres) of farmland and permission to earn extra money in the cities between planting and harvesting seasons. There was enormous optimism that the good times were ahead.

But in 1997, the Yunfu township government confiscated more than a third of their land for development, paying compensation of £2,600 per mu (666 square metres, or about a sixth of an acre). That was grudgingly accepted. The economy was growing so quickly that even with the quarter of a mu each family had left, they could still make a better living than in the days before the reforms. Growing vegetables, Mrs Wang and her husband could earn as much as £180 a month – a good income for a Chinese farmer.

That changed completely on September 21 2004, when another huge tranche of village property was seized, leaving Mrs Wang too little land to make a living as a farmer and too little compensation to strike out into business. It took just one illness to plunge her family into poverty. Last year, her son needed emergency treatment for internal bleeding. Paying for his medical fees and prescription drugs used up all of the family’s savings and pushed them into debt.

Local activist Ding Ou says people have died because they were unable to pay for hospital treatment, some parents cannot afford to send their children to school, and one man – Zhi Zhou – killed himself because he was no longer able to fend for his family. “This was once a reasonably prosperous community,” he says. “Now it is so miserable that people forage in the rubbish for food.”

Similar problems are emerging all over China. Since 1979, the proportion of urban dwellers has more than doubled and an average of 4.5 million mu (three-quarters of a million acres) of farmland has been eaten up every year by factories, roads and housing estates, and the process is accelerating. Farmers believe the compensation paid to them for land confiscated for development is way too low (they don’t own the land, they are granted rights to it, usually for 30 years, by village collectives). Resentment is particularly bitter in Guangdong, where agricultural land increases in value by as much as thirtyfold once it is reclassified as development land.

Professor Ye Jinaping, head of the department of land management at Renmin University, said the problem is that local officials have too much power, governors are too inclined to measure their importance by the extent of their city limits, and the amounts of money involved are too great a temptation. Other academics say local governments get 60 to 70% of the profits from land transfers. Much of it ends up in the hands of cadres and officials – many of whom treat their territory like the fiefdoms of old.

Among the most explosive books in recent years was an exposé of torture, murder and exploitation of peasants by brutal local officials. A Survey Of Chinese Peasants, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, was quickly banned by the authorities, who feared it might spark unrest, but pirate copies continue to be widely circulated and an English version – retitled Will The Boat Sink The Water – has recently been published. The authors lay it out plainly: “It is safe to say that the edifice of China’s industry is built from the flesh and blood of toiling peasants and urban development was achieved through their pain and sacrifice.”

The Yunfu authorities who confiscated Mrs Wang’s land are only doing what countless other municipalities around the country have done. In a terse response to my questions about the case, the local Municipal Land and Resources Bureau said the village property had been legally seized “in order to perfect the city’s infrastructure” and with “compensation paid in full”.

Against such powerful local interests, what do peasants such as Mrs Wang do to seek justice? The answer has been the same for centuries: they travel to Beijing to make a direct appeal to the rulers of the nation. And in doing so, they become a member of China’s most desperate underclass: the petitioners. This is probably the only group with lower social status than the peasantry. No one knows how many there are – it could be tens of thousands or tens of millions – but they all share the same belief in a benevolent central government that will correct the injustices carried out by local tyrants. It is a legacy of the imperial age. Up until 100 years ago, petitioners put their hopes in the emperor, who was believed to rule with the mandate of heaven. Since 1949, appeals for earthly, or divine, justice go by letter to the state council – the communist-controlled cabinet.

It is 2,460 kilometres from Xiangyang village to Tiananmen Square, but despite Mrs Wang’s disability – since an accident in the 80s she has had trouble walking – she was determined to be part of the delegation that went to the capital. The villagers had never lodged a petition before, but they quickly organised themselves. Each family in the four communities dug deep into their pockets to raise the money to send a nine-member delegation to Beijing. On any other occasion, the 22-hour train journey through the plains of eastern China, across the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, would have been a source of wonder – none of the villagers had ever been to the capital before – but the mood was sombre. They were going to the only place where they thought they might receive fair treatment, but it was soon apparent that justice would be hard to find.

“When we arrived, we went to Tiananmen Square directly without having dinner, because we thought the National Petition Bureau was there,” says Mrs Wang. It wasn’t. By the time they found the right place, it was too late. They lodged at a £2-per-night flophouse and tried again the next day. It was dispiriting and confusing. Mere peasants, the officials told them, should not be taking up so much important government time.

“The petition official was horrible,” recalls Mrs Wang. “He told us, ‘Don’t come to me. There are more than 2,200 counties and cities in China. How can I deal with all of them?’ ”

It is all too common a story. In the rubbish-strewn alleys of Fengtai, near South Beijing railway station, an entire community of petitioners has sprung up – some of them waiting for years in the hope of redress. Many are scarred, on crutches, blind or otherwise horribly maimed from industrial accidents, police beatings and acid attacks. Most complain of being cheated of their land by developers and bribe-taking officials. Others tell of daughters raped by village chiefs, and factory bosses running off with workers’ redundancy money. They are treated as trouble-makers who threaten communal unity. According to civil rights groups, fewer than one in 500 petitions is successful.

Nicholas Becquelin, of Human Rights Watch, believes a sense of injustice is pushing peasants to violence. “There is a race among officials to grab this property,” he says, “but it creates a volatile situation. If factory workers see their plant close, they don’t lose everything. But when a farmer has his land taken, he is left with nothing. This has radicalised many peasants.”

Mrs Wang would never consider herself a rebel. But once she started petitioning, she was treated like one. On a second expensive and fruitless trip to Beijing, she and her fellow villagers were followed by Yunfu police and escorted back home. After six months, Mrs Wang’s appeal for justice had got her nowhere. She was growing poorer by the day, and all the time she could see the developers working on the land that had been her life. When they started to construct a Honda showroom on the old cabbage patch, Mrs Wang’s patience snapped. She joined the front line of a demonstration and was arrested by the police. It was the act that finally pushed her into the legal system, though not in the way she wanted. She spent 15 days in detention. She had lost her land and now she was being locked up for complaining about it. “That was the most unforgettable experience of my life,” she says of her time on a penal production line, making rubber gloves. “We had to work without rest or they refused to feed us.”

There are also peasants who have struck it rich. Some have been able to keep their property and rent it out to developers. In Guangzhou, this has created a new class of privileged former farmers who live off a regular income stream from their old land. Take Zhong Jian, whose modern apartment in a 30-storey tower block offers a splendid panorama of what used to be his father’s farmland. Those fields are now piled high with skyscrapers. His family’s share of the rent brings in 100,000 yuan (£6,650) per year – enough for him to pay all of his expenses with sufficient remaining to go drinking with his friends in the evening and gambling on the internet all through the night.

“I’m not unusual,” he tells me over a lakeside dinner of boiled frog and snake. “There are many people in Guangzhou like this. They have enough money not to have to work.”

The close proximity of such affluence is galling to those left behind, often not because of a difference in ability but because of a lack of connections. Just 40 minutes’ drive from Zhong’s skyscraper home, the huge gulf in Chinese society is evident in Sanshan village – a troubled community on the south bank of the Pearl River where vegetable fields, a small banana plantation and several fish farms are straddled by high-tension power lines and surrounded by factories. This is where the megalopolis meets the countryside – the border between China’s poor past and its wealthy future. It is in places like this that the most traumatic change is taking place, where the gap between winners and losers is most evident, and where most conflicts occur.

Sanshan experienced some of the worst fighting in May last year, when thousands of police arrived to evict farmers. The villagers knew that the bulldozers were due to arrive, so they had been camping on the fields for more than a month, but in the end they were no match for the security forces, who blocked mobile phone signals, locked down the area and moved in with batons. The peasants were told that their leaders had given up all claims to the land in 1992, when every family received a 2,000 yuan (£133) one-off payment as compensation. The first couple of factories opened in 1993. But since 2000 there has been a surge of development. There are now more than 200 plants, many of them owned by Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen, who prefer to hire outside labour. Locals say 80% of the Sanshan villagers are unemployed.

“My family has been here for generations. We have lost our land,” says a woman who gives her name as Ling Ming. “We worry that future generations will have no way to make a living. Already we cannot afford treatment if we are sick. We will pass on our poverty to our children.” The villagers are powerless, she says. “We have tried petitions, blocking roads and fighting with police. But the township uses undercover police and gangsters to maintain control.”

Since the end of last year, when prime minister Wen Jiabao warned that illegal land seizures would not be tolerated, there has been a slight softening of the local government’s position. They have temporarily halted development and offered 50% more compensation. But the locals are unappeased.

“All the money paid by the enterprises has gone into the pockets of cadres and bureaucrats. We can see with our own eyes how they have enriched themselves with new cars and big houses,” says Ling Ming. Her faith in the central government has weakened as her hatred of the local authorities has intensified.

The villagers of Sanshan are looking for some means of securing justice and they are being encouraged by a motley crew of civil rights lawyers, liberal academics and NGOs. These rural democracy activists see the simmering unrest over land in Guangdong as an opportunity to press the authorities to be more accountable. The villagers are a receptive audience.

Election results are still heavily influenced by communist cadres, vote-buying and intimidation, but more and more independent candidates are being chosen as village chiefs – although it is the lowest rung on the political ladder, they often have a greater electoral mandate than township officials and more of an incentive to question the legality of land transactions.

Although farmers are forbidden to form independent organisations, they are able to link up, thanks to the spread of the internet and mobile phones. This is particularly true in Guangdong. Even in the relatively backward area of Yunfu, locals estimate that a third of homes have access to the web. Despite an army of internet censors, news of conflicts and arrests often spreads quickly. There are online bulletin boards advising rural activists how to write petitions and legal websites informing people of their rights. Civil rights groups provide manuals on how to bypass the censors. In response, the Guangdong authorities have blacklisted many activists. Several are under house arrest. Others have been beaten up by “Black Society” thugs.

The most prolonged crackdown has occurred at Taishi, a village just outside Guangzhou, where locals – advised by a stream of civil rights activists from Beijing and elsewhere – mounted an impressive campaign last year to impeach a chief suspected of embezzling money from land sales. The local authorities responded by hiring gangsters to lock down the village and threaten anyone who joined the protests.

Their warnings were not idle. Last October, the activist Lu Banglie was savagely beaten when he attempted to take one of my Guardian colleagues into the community. Six months on, residents say there are still 30 guards restricting access to the area. “It’s like there is a black fog enveloping the village,” says one man. “Everyone feels they could be arrested at any moment. It’s appalling, like a form of terrorism.”

Anyone who tries to organise farmers to defend their land comes under suspicion. Hou Wenzhuo, an activist educated in the west and a prominent figure in the rural rights movement, is under constant surveillance. In Beijing, the authorities have put pressure on her landlord to kick her out of her office and her home. A few years ago, she says, rural dwellers were most worried about excessive – and often arbitrary – local taxes, but now their main concern is land seizures. “We are not a radical group. We follow legal channels to talk about democracy, starting with elections at local level where it is already permissible. We don’t encourage violence and confrontation.”

Last year, China was racked by 87,000 protests, riots and other mass incidents in almost every province. Dang Guoying, a professor at a rural development institute, believes the solution is to give the land to individual peasants and strengthen their political rights – essentially, a little more capitalism and a lot more democracy. “At present, peasants have no right to protect themselves because the land is owned in the name of the public, so it is easily seized by people with power,” Dang argues. “We must have a new political system, a democratic political system. Democracy protects the weak.”

State leaders are far more cautious. When prime minister Wen Jiabao came to power three years ago, a group of retired senior leaders urged him to privatise the land. “Give us time,” he is said to have replied. Compared with their predecessors, Wen and President Hu have placed more emphasis on tackling rural poverty. Their recent promise to create a “new socialist countryside” could herald a shift away from the focus on urban development that has characterised economic policy for the past 20 years. As a sign of its intent, the government said last month it would allocate an extra 42bn yuan (£2.8bn) for poor rural areas and improve access to healthcare and education. Wen has also promised more democracy and local accountability. The State Council – China’s cabinet – is reviewing draft regulations that would allow farmers to form independent associations, giving them a voice.

But even if such steps are approved, it is far from clear that they will be any more successful than a raft of other fine-sounding central government initiatives that had little impact. Progressive policies on the environment, industrial safety and health reform have been resisted by local officials, who remain addicted to urbanisation, industrial development and economic growth – and all the kickbacks they bring. Increasingly, it looks as though the notoriously authoritarian state is losing its authority.

Dang believes the central government is sincere in promising more help for the countryside, but there is not yet enough political momentum.

“China’s reforms so far have been introduced under pressure. There hasn’t been enough pressure in the field of land ownership yet. But there will come a time when our top leaders will be forced to reform the system to maintain social stability and prevent damage to the economy. We are not at that point yet. But I predict a change within five years.”

He may be too optimistic. There is a widely held assumption in the west that increased wealth automatically ushers in greater democracy and social justice. But what is happening in Guangdong suggests the opposite. This is China’s richest province, but it has also witnessed some of the most violent demonstrations, bloody crackdowns and ruthless measures to silence media criticism and crush grass-roots activism. The government’s answer to the unrest is to promise the peasants more money and to beef up its security forces. In the meantime, the land is being moved into ever fewer and richer hands.

For the dispossessed – the venerable Mrs Wang and the fiery Mrs Ling – this has been a radicalising experience. But whether their anger will change anything is far from certain. Most of China’s 700 million peasants remain poor, unorganised and ill-informed about their rights. The students, who might have allied with them in 1989, are now more interested in joining the middle class.

Many, like Mrs Wang, who have suffered a total collapse in living standards, blame local officials and them alone. No matter how desperate the conditions, no matter how many futile trips to the capital, their belief in the benevolent emperor remains strong.

“We will go back to Beijing in the hope that the central government can solve our problems. Their policies are good, but our country is too big,” she says. “I wish the top leaders could come to our village one day. I would like to ask prime minister Wen for our land to be returned to us.”

But belief in the emperor is fading among younger, better-informed peasants such as Mrs Ling. They can see that land seizures are not just the fault of local tyrants and they are beginning to question whether there is any point trying to petition the central government. Despite arrests and beatings, they have not given up. They are educating themselves about their rights, networking and putting up independent candidates in village elections. If political change is ever to come to China, the starting point may well prove to be their confiscated land.

· Additional reporting by Huang Lisha.