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China's farmers protest a key Mao tenet

Peasants want to own their land and have organized rallies in several provinces. More are planned.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2008

Property battle: Chinese farmers tried to return to land set aside for Sanmenxia dam, but officials took control of half of it.

Feature China/zhang xiaoli/newscom


Liren, China

The snowy, fogbound fields around this village in central China do not look like a battlefield. But in recent weeks they have become a flash point in a spreading peasants' revolt against one of the key aspects of Communist Party rule: state ownership of farmland.

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"My ancestors bought this land" before the 1949 Communist revolution, says Cheng Zhenhai, a grizzled cotton farmer huddling close to the stove in his dimly lit one-room home, "so I have to keep it. As a peasant, I want nothing else."

Mr. Cheng was one of more than 10,000 peasants in Shaanxi Province who signed a public letter last month renouncing the collective land-ownership system that has governed China's countryside for the past half century and declaring the land they farm to be their private property. At about the same time, farmers in four other provinces signed similar declarations that appeared on the Internet.

The statements represent only a theoretical change, since farmers are powerless to reform the law and local authorities have cracked down hard by arresting ringleaders of the nascent movement. But some observers suggest that if protests gather steam, they could spark radical changes.

"It could be a revolution," says Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "Privatization of land is a foundation of democracy and the rule of law in China, because land is a basic resource."

Others doubt the movement will get off the ground, given authorities' hostility. "I just can't see this being successful," says Jon Unger, a China expert at Australian National University in Melbourne. "When peasants demand a different economic system in violation of the Constitution, they put themselves in a weak position."

That the Chinese government is taking the movement seriously seems evident from the gravity of the charges laid against organizers of the declarations. Chen Sizhong, who circulated the Shaanxi letter in his village of Huayin, was detained in an unheated cell for a month before being charged with "attempting to overthrow state power," a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Cheng, who farms cotton and corn on the 1-1/2 acres of land he leases, scoffs at that accusation. "We are peasants," he says. "We have no goal but to get our land back. When we have achieved that, we won't bother anyone."

As a young man, Cheng was forcibly relocated from his home, as were 290,000 other farmers and their families in the region, to make way for the Sanmenxia dam, China's first megaproject. The dam proved unusable, however, due to faulty design. Within a few years, as the planned reservoir shrank to a fraction of its original size, the land around Liren reappeared.

When farmers returned home spontaneously they were allocated only half the land they had been obliged to abandon, residents recall. The local authorities retained control over the other 25,000 acres, saying they were holding it in reserve for future returnees.

No more farmers came back, however, and over the past 20 years those 25,000 acres of publicly held land have shrunk to less than 7,000 acres, according to official documents.

"The rest has become the private property of local government officials who rent it out to peasants for their own profit," says one local official in the district seat of Weinan who is sympathetic to the farmers and who asked to remain anonymous for fear of punishment.