China's Deepening Rural Unrest Tests Beijing's Control

WHEN village authorities here sold off valued rice lands to allow for a Japanese appliance factory last year, farmers stood up against their local leaders - and sat down in protest.

With children in tow, 4,000 people staged a sit-in on the major Guangzhou-Zhuhai highway. After they held their ground for an hour, riot police moved in to clear the road.

That protest drew the attention of township and provincial leaders, who arrested the corrupt local officials for selling land for their own profit. But a year later, with the officials released and the factory scheduled to go ahead, unrest is simmering once again.

``The old leaders were removed and the village now has a new leadership,'' villager He Rubiao says. ``But so far they have failed to decide on the project. So the villagers do not know how this will be handled.''

The outburst in Xie, a hamlet set in the heart of southern China's economic boom, is just one among the brush fires of anger and unrest spreading in the Chinese countryside. Even the official press reports that crime, corruption, and protests have become so widespread in the past year that disorder is straining government control over rural areas, home to three-quarters of China's 1.2 billion people.

A recent article in the official Legal Daily warned that a collapse of authority has led to lawlessness and created a core of ``village warlords, land warlords, water warlords, and grain warlords'' controlling scarce resources. Among 24 provinces surveyed, more than 600 outbreaks of violence killed more than 100 people and injured more than 2,000 people, the newspaper said.

The warning signals a growing concern among the Communist leadership over unrest in its key peasant base and a deepening crisis in Chinese agriculture, Chinese and Western analysts say. ``If the farmers rise in revolt, no one knows what the consequences will be,'' a Chinese agriculture expert says.

Only 15 years ago, farmers were the vanguard of market-style reforms transforming China. Although private land ownership is barred under communism, economic changes that unraveled collective farming allowed peasants to grow crops for their own profit and hold other jobs on the side.

But now the fruits of reform seem to be passing farmers by. Amid 13 percent economic growth, average yearly rural income grew by only 3.2 percent to $106, compared to 10.2 percent in the cities, where average yearly income is $270.

Tough times have spurred farmers to seek a better life, setting in motion a mass migration to the cities. There are more than 150 million surplus laborers in the countryside and more than 100 million farmers in migration during the year, according to the Agriculture Ministry. The movement has left fewer farmers producing crops while the demand for food in cities is rising. Last year, the amount of cultivated farmland fell 2 percent as fast-paced industrial and real-estate developments consumed prime rural lands.

Due to better farming techniques and high-yield crops, grain production in 1993 rose slightly to more than 450 million tons, but overall output failed to keep pace with demand, the Agricultural Ministry said. The Ministry also warns that the grain supply is likely to drop in 1994 and 1995 because of natural disasters, diminishing farmlands, the low price at which grain is purchased from farmers, and rising costs of seed and fertilizer. Indeed, the need has become so acute and prices have risen so sharply since last fall that the government has slapped price controls on a dozen commodities deregulated only a year ago and rushed supplies on special trains to areas of shortage.

China's grain-handling-and-distribution system has become so inefficient that Western economists estimate one-quarter of the national harvest is wasted because of antiquated handling equipment, poor storage, and the overburdened rail network.The government is struggling for solutions to the rural discontent. Beijing says it will boost investment in major grain- and cotton-growing areas and establish a safety net for farmers when grain prices fall below production costs. It is also expected to restructure the array of arbitrary taxes imposed on farmers into a single system and pressure provincial officials to end freewheeling real estate development. Also, the household registration system, a mainstay of central planning controls, is under review and could be phased out, giving farmers more economic freedom, say Chinese press reports.

But corruption has become so pervasive that it continues to drive a wedge between the ruling party and its bedrock supporters, the peasants. The Chinese press frequently reports incidents that underscore the rift.

THOUSANDS of peasants in inland Hunan province recently had to beg for food after officials sold off emergency supplies. Guangdong Province has been hit with a number of outbursts of anticorruption violence by farmers edgy about losing their land. Near the city of Huizhou in Guangdong Province, in January, police confronted and disarmed 20 villagers carrying explosives and demanding $1.2 million for land they say was sold illegally by local officials to developers. In 1993, the area had nine outbreaks of violence over land, injuring more than 100 people, according to the New China News Agency.

Senior officials in Beijing have warned that land disputes aggravate the already declining agriculture sector in the Guangdong Province. Grain output fell 10 percent in 1993, and grain-seeded areas hit a record low since 1949, forcing the import of grain from elsewhere. Investment in agriculture now stands at 7 percent of the total, almost half of what it was in 1980.

With industrial production expanding at more than 30 percent yearly, needed fertile land is being absorbed for industrial zones and other development. That has set the stage for future conflicts over land, farmers predict.

In Xie, the peasants say a task force from the township came to investigate their charges of corruption, but failed to accuse the local leaders. ``They failed to find any irregularities,'' Mr. He, the local resident, said. ``Now the villagers don't know where to turn.''

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