On a recent day in this southern Chinese village, an elderly peasant wearing a conical straw hat hoed fitfully at the dirt in a vacant lot. Only 90 feet to the east, but a world away, the winners in China's new economy pulled into a shiny new Honda dealership.
Not long ago, the two-acre lot where the cars are sold — under a proud red tower with "Honda" emblazoned on it — was lush with rice paddies, truck farms and peanut plots. But times have changed. The fields of Aoshi and surrounding hamlets have been swallowed up by economic development unfurling at breakneck speed across the plains and hills here in Guangdong province, about 175 miles northwest of Hong Kong.
Like the stooped peasant working the soil, many farmers here have been reduced to tilling vacant strips along the borders of new buildings and construction sites, raising crops on ground that is no longer legally theirs to work. Their land, on the edge of fast-growing Yunfu city, has been marked for development, and they have been marked for obsolescence.
"We can't afford to buy those cars," a farmer said, looking at the Honda dealership as if it were in a foreign country. "The only ones buying them are government officials."
Across China, millions of farmers in thousands of villages have met similar fates, pushed aside by the need for land to build factories, apartments, hospitals and roads in a country enjoying more than 9 percent annual growth. The boom has led to a better life for most of the 1.3 billion Chinese, often including farmers. But it has come at the price of tearing peasants from their roots and their livelihood, leaving them no option but to become migrant workers in factories far from home.
"We don't have our land anymore, so where do we go?" said a young farmer whose family plot in Aoshi was bulldozed to make way for a fire station.
Without an independent court system and unschooled in the ways of bureaucracy, the farmers fend for themselves against frequently corrupt local Communist Party officials with broad authority and powerful economic incentive to confiscate farmland to sell to developers. In recent years, the result increasingly has been rage and violent protest. Stability in the countryside has become a major worry for President Hu Jintao's government, leading Hu to launch an intense campaign for improving life in the countryside.
In Aoshi and the adjacent villages of Xiangyang, Baimianshi and Shangxiangwei, the price of progress was made clear when officials from Yunfu city showed up one day a year and a half ago and told farmers to quickly harvest as many fruits and vegetables as they could. Heavy equipment arrived 90 minutes later and was in use until nightfall, villagers recalled, destroying rice paddies, truck gardens and peanut plots that had provided them with a livelihood for generations untold.
Protests put down
The farmers in Aoshi, on Yunfu's northern edge, protested noisily when the bulldozers came. Hundreds of policemen quickly put down the demonstration. Ten farmers said they were arrested — a pattern that would be repeated during protests over the next year.
The bulldozers and front-end loaders kept at it for 10 days, until about 36 acres had been scraped bare for construction. Although not a large amount of land by U.S. standards, farmers supporting 144 families, comprising most of the four villages' 800 residents, had been put out of work, their leaders said.
Within two weeks, the farmers had organized and gone to Yunfu's Land and Resources Administration to complain. Yunfu's compensation offer, a one-time payment averaging $875 per landholding villager, was inadequate, they said. Instead, they insisted on a lifetime pension of $44 a month per villager. Officials repeatedly told them everything had been carried out according to law.
They also turned to the courts. But a court official told them nothing could be done. "Yunfu is just too corrupt," the official told them. They went to see provincial authorities in Guangzhou, who also rejected their pleas.
Undaunted, the farmers traveled to Beijing on Nov. 19, 2004, two months after the bulldozers showed up. They visited the Land and Resources Ministry, the petition office of Premier Wen Jiabao's government headquarters and China Central Television, where, they said, no one was interested in a DVD showing the destruction of their fields.
Instead of attention, they said, they received repeated visits from city and provincial officials urging them to stay home and avoid making more trouble. Three months passed, and they were no closer to recovering their land or getting what they considered acceptable compensation.4out of their villages at 1 a.m., six of the farmers traveled to the capital on March 15, 2005. Despite their stealth, they recalled, Yunfu police and civilian officials tracked them down and ordered them to drop their petitions or face problems at home.
The farmers instead split into three pairs to shake the tail. The tactic worked. One team eluded the police and presented another petition to Wen's office. There was no response, and on the train back to Guangzhou, they noticed a policeman still shadowing them.
By May, work had begun on the Honda dealership and, down the road, on the regional fire station. With no compensation settlement in sight, villagers grew desperate as months went by. Again sneaking out one by one after midnight Nov. 1, six farmers returned to Beijing, hoping to present their petition anew in Wen's office.
"That's the only place we knew to go," one said.
This time, their hopes rose. An official in the petition office of the State Council, or cabinet, gave them a letter in a sealed envelope. Do not open it, they recalled him saying, but give it to the Guangdong provincial petition office and await a response. On Nov. 17, they got an appointment to present the letter. The Guangdong petition official, they recalled, read the letter from Beijing and then handed them another letter, also sealed, and asked them to hand it over unopened to the Yunfu petition office.
At last, things seemed to be working. So by Nov. 21, when they got in to see a Yunfu petition official and give him the provincial letter, their spirits were high. The official reminded them that the petition office was only a mediator, they recalled, but he promised to turn the letter over to the appropriate authorities and get them an answer.
Nearly three months went by, the farmers said, before village leaders were finally called into a meeting on Feb. 16 with two North Yunfu District officials. "They once again said the land confiscation was legal," a participant said.
The distraught farmers pulled out a newspaper in which the Guangdong provincial party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, was quoted as saying that no land confiscation could be carried out until farmers and authorities agreed on the compensation. "Yes, we've seen that," one of the officials responded laconically, according to farmers in the meeting. "But you have to understand us. Our city is very poor. We can't give you everything you want."
Ye Rui, who heads the Yunfu Land and Resources Administration, said the city followed government rules, calculating compensation according to the value of crops in recent years. Asked for a more detailed accounting, he said in a telephone conversation that he first needed authorization from Guangdong provincial authorities. Provincial authorities, asked for the authorization, forwarded a fax nine days later affirming that the rules had been followed and adding no details.
An entrepreneur involved in the Honda dealership's land-use purchase said that the owner paid $250,000 for a little more than two acres. That amounted to many times the compensation offered to the peasants who worked the land, the farmers said, and they expressed interest in knowing who pocketed the difference.
Similar transactions have made land confiscations a source of revenue for cities across China, according to government officials, and a pool of ready funds for corrupt cadres to skim from. Zhou Tianyong, a professor at the Central Party School, estimated last year that resale of farmland for development has brought in $600 billion nationwide since 2003, and only 10 percent of that was paid to farmers in compensation.
In a recent speech, Wen condemned such profit-taking, joining President Hu in urging better treatment for China's 750 million farmers. The Yunfu party secretary, Zheng Liping, echoed the party's new theme recently, calling on the local government to "sincerely welcome petitions and sincerely resolve problems" raised by farmers, according to the South China Morning Post.
But in Aoshi and surrounding villages, the welcome was tense. Yunfu peppered the area with police after a Washington Post correspondent visited recently. Because of the heavy police presence, farmers were reluctant to leave their homes. Most of those interviewed asked that their names not be used for fear of retribution.
When the Post correspondent returned a couple of weeks later, he was swiftly surrounded by four unmarked vehicles and taken by plainclothes police to North Yunfu District headquarters. There he was interrogated and lectured on the need for authorization from provincial authorities for any reporting in Yunfu, before being escorted to the city limits and sent on his way.