Tensions rise as China grabs land from farmers

Image: A Chinese farmer walks past the half completed apartment blocks built to relocate the farmers from Damazizhuang village in northern China's Hebei province
A Chinese farmer walks past the half completed apartment blocks built to relocate the farmers from Damazizhuang village in northern China's Hebei province in this photo taken Friday, Feb. 11.Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

First, the taps ran dry. Now, Sun Yueming wonders when the electricity will be cut.

His family is one of two holdouts in this otherwise abandoned village in northern China, resisting a local government campaign to move farmers off their ancestral lands and into apartments.

As China tries to protect farmland from development, officials are going after the land underneath farmers' homes instead.

The relocations, often forced and at compensation levels deemed unfair, are raising tensions in a countryside already straining from protests over official misdeeds.

Sun's one-story wood and red brick house may be dingy and poorly insulated, but it has nine rooms, a well in the yard and plots to grow cucumbers and tomatoes.

It also sits on land that has been home to generations of his family. Officials want him to give that up for a two-bedroom apartment with central heating, gas, and modern toilets — and to fork out 30,000 yuan ($4,600) for the relocation.

"They're taking my house. They should be giving me money. Why should I have to pay them?" he said at his home, about an hour's drive from Beijing.

Crumbling houses
His village is a ghost town. The doors and windows have been ripped out of dozens of crumbling houses.

The yards are strewn with abandoned items: broken wooden chairs, a torn leather couch, a dirty yellow teddy bear. An eerie silence has replaced the barking dogs, playing children and chatting villagers on street corners.

Many farmers are happy to cut their ties to the land for better living standards, particularly those able to find jobs in nearby cities. It's a millennial change in lifestyle as they move into apartment buildings for the first time.

In Hebei province's Anping township, farmers have moved into six-story apartment blocks, parking their mud-encrusted, three-wheeled farm vehicles alongside shiny sedans in the compound's lot.

A poster on a notice board illustrates the safe use of gas for stove top cooking.

Li Huishan said he is happy with his 1,300 square foot apartment but concerned about how long the 300,000 yuan ($46,000) he received would last him and his wife. The compensation varies from place to place, and sometimes even within villages.

"Our old house used to leak a lot. This new place is more spacious and looks good," the 63-year-old Li said, gesturing at his living room, which was warmed by wall-mounted radiators and bright sunlight, with space for a large refrigerator next to the TV.

The master bedroom bathroom is being used to store blankets because, Li explained, having two toilets in one house seemed unnecessary.

But others are unhappy. In Jiangsu province, hundreds of farmers marched twice last year to the offices of the Hua'an city government to protest against officials who withheld 70 percent of money owed to them after they moved into apartments, said Li Jinsong, a lawyer for one of the farmers.

Li's client was detained with others after allegedly beating up a policeman.

The problems appear to stem from a well-intentioned new national land policy that has gone awry in the hands of greedy and sometimes corrupt local officials.

The policy, still in trial phase, seeks to preserve China's dwindling farmland while also making room for more commercial development.

Farmers are moved into apartments, so that the land on which their houses sit can be converted to farmland.

Then local governments are allowed to increase their land quota for development elsewhere by the same amount.

Official estimates show that farmland is close to the minimum of 300 million acres that the government considers necessary to grow food. That represents a loss of more than 20 million acres in the past decade.

Another goal of the policy is to consolidate China's sprawling villages so farmers have easier access to services such as health care.

Officials are eager to move farmers off the land, because land sales make up about half of local government revenue and, in some areas, as much as 80 percent.

The governments earn huge profits by compensating farmers very little, said Xianfang Ren, senior analyst in Beijing for IHS Global Insight, a consulting firm.

"Basically, this scheme has become a new source of land supply for many local governments," she said.

Eighty-one year-old garlic farmer Wen Chungui said he gave up his half-acre of farmland in 2007 to the local government, who then sold it to developers for several hundred times what he gets in annual compensation.

"The developers gave the government money, but what good did that bring us?" he said, shaking his head.

Now local leaders are trying to get the residents of his village of Wenzhuang to move into apartments.

Wen said he would have to sell the goat he keeps in a rickety wooden pen in his yard, where ears of corn hang from roof beams to dry and scrap metal is piled in wooden sheds.

His main concern is his 47-year-old daughter, whose legs have been left twisted by polio. "How will my daughter climb up and down the stairs?"

The Ministry of Land and Resources referred a request for comment to remarks by top officials at a conference in February, where Vice Minister Yun Xiaosu said the policy was meant to consolidate rural land use but also acknowledged abuses.

He ordered local governments to conduct self-inspections, to be followed up by central government checks.

Prof. Zheng Fengtian, a rural economy expert at Renmin University in Beijing, said that farmers find that apartment living brings costs they cannot afford.

No longer subsisting on their land, they must pay for food, water, gas and building maintenance.

"A lot of farmers have a saying: 'Even if you beat me to death, I won't move into an apartment,'" Zheng said. "Moving into an apartment is like cutting off their life source."