China's farmers protest a key Mao tenet
Peasants want to own their land and have organized rallies in several provinces. More are planned.
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Challenging a key Communist tenetSkip to next paragraph
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Such land grabs by corrupt officials – who sell the land to developers or rent it out for personal gain – are not uncommon in China: They are the cause of most of the tens of thousands of peasant riots that break out every year across the country.
But the spate of recent declarations asserting farmers' private ownership over the land has taken such protests a crucial step further, challenging a central pillar of the Communist Party's legitimacy.
Mao Zedong attracted millions of peasants to the 1949 revolution with his promise to seize the land from rapacious landlords and give it to them. Today, however, "officials have become the modern landlords," the Sanmenxia region farmers complain in their declaration.
The announcements of land claims in five Chinese provinces, which government censors removed from websites as soon as they found them, appeared because "at a certain moment, the peasants couldn't take it anymore. They have been petitioning the government every year without a solution. It just exploded," according to the Weinan official.
But the timing of the announcements was no coincidence: The movement is being coordinated and encouraged by pro-democracy intellectual activists who see resolution of the peasants' grievances as a step towards political freedom, says one such activist. "We are in touch with peasants in 13 other provinces and they will launch their demands when the time comes," he says. "It will take time to organize."
Whether the movement will gain traction, however, remains in doubt. The 120,000 farmers in whose name the declarations were issued are a drop in the ocean of China's 700 million-strong peasantry. Both the central and local government authorities have tried hard to clamp down on them, forbidding any reporting of the issue in the domestic media, arresting peasant leaders, and detaining foreign journalists seeking to report on the movement.
"Farmers are desperate" in the face of official expropriations, "and a lot of them feel that if the land were privately owned, officials would not be able to do this," says Professor Unger.
As a first step, collective ownership
But surveys have shown, he adds, that most peasants would actually prefer a system under which former Communist-organized "production teams," comprising between 10 and 20 families, owned the land collectively. That would allow them to redistribute their land occasionally as member families shrank or grew, needing less or more land to feed themselves.
Some leaders of the current movement acknowledge that collective ownership, if it were in the hands of villagers instead of district officials, might be a more realistic short-term goal than outright household private ownership. "Private ownership is a long-term goal; we cannot reach it now," says Mr. Chen from Huayin.
"At the moment, Communist Party officials, not China the country, are the landlords," adds the activist. "Once the collective has the land, the next step will be to distribute it back to households."
The idea of privatizing farmland, now that much of the rest of the Chinese economy has been taken out of state hands, has gained considerable support in academic circles and in think tanks that advise the government, according to political observers here. But it remains a taboo subject for open debate, given the iconic status that land collectivization enjoys in the rhetoric of what is still nominally a Communist regime.
That rhetoric cuts little ice with cotton farmer Cheng, however, whose only modern convenience is a television in one corner of his simple home. "China is getting rich, but we peasants aren't," he says bluntly. "Only corrupt officials are getting rich. I live worse than my parents did, and it's because we don't have enough land."