Clashes over land roil China's poor
Ni Youlian is the "Last Mohican" in a downtown neighborhood that used to have 4,000 families. He's glad that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have taken up the cause of ordinary people in their speeches this week at China's annual National People's Congress. But like so many urban and city folk who lost farmland or houses to China's epic redevelopment, he doesn't see an end to the lucrative collusion between officials and developers that has created so many millionaires - but has also contributed to so much suspicion and instances of instability. China recorded 87,000 riots or protests last year.Skip to next paragraph
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Ni's courtyard house, officially "protected" for years, was bulldozed in 2003 to make way for skyscrapers. It is a familiar story in Beijing - except Ni refused a cheap buy-off. His life savings were in the house. He withstood beatings by thugs that caused most of his neighbors to leave. He now lives in a plywood shack, and expects the bulldozer any day. But he won't leave.
"Our lawyers won't even try anymore," Ni says of efforts to satisfy his grievance. "The police and the demolition company are together. What they say at the Great Hall and what happens here are different things. Construction will continue, with no change.
"Officials don't really see us. They look at the flowers from horseback," he says, quoting an old Chinese proverb.
A rise of new money and power groups has widened the gap here between rich and poor, urban and rural, and is creating sizable anxieties in the often neglected countryside.
A chief grievance is the practice of local officials, developers, and banks that take and build on land by kicking out farmers or the poor - and relocating them with little recompense or prospects. Pollution and environmental degradation, and corruption among officials, are other oft-grumbled concerns.
Popular anger echoes around China, and is a contrast with the boom-time story often told about this country. It is one reason why Hu and Wen are talking about reform. But it isn't clear the two leaders' efforts at revamping socialism will be accepted and take hold.
For the past 10 years, China's People's Congress has been a well-oiled rubber stamp - providing state approval for the consensus decisions of the Communist Party leaders.
Under leader Jiang Zemin, China built an export-driven manufacturing juggernaut that continues to record double digit growth. Yet China's rise also brought a rise of new money and power interest groups in diffuse cities and provinces.
When they took over from Jiang in 2003, Hu and Wen created a "people first" policy, also known as a "harmonious society" policy. It was designed to ease social tensions created by the rough and tumble of market forces, and to give the new leaders a popular base among ordinary people. The masses were increasingly restive about poor health care, costly schooling, and a lack of good jobs.
Wen's speech this week promoting a "new socialist countryside," and promising to embark on a "historic task" to redistribute wealth and to fund education and health care among the 700 to 900 million rural population, signifies at least an intention to promote those policies.