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.

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.

Yet this week, as the Hu-Wen government attempts to consolidate power, a cacophony of voices inside the Great Hall of the People, and in hastily arranged press meetings and leaks suggests that rumors of rifts in the leadership over the direction of this huge and complex state, are partly founded.

The basic question is: should the ideology of socialism and equity, the old left - be a check on China's market forces and serve the people through wealth redistribution? Or should the vibrant markets of Shanghai and Guangdong, the new right, shape and change Chinese socialism - as former leader Jiang outlined in his legacy-enshrining "Three Represents," a tract that outlined the basis for capitalists to join the Communist Party and for a gradual weakening of Marx and Mao.

The Hu-Wen government has reduced the taxes on farmers, and the People's Congress has taken up the question of legal reform and is planning to improve education and send support funds to the heartland. Still, there has been little open discussion about how to enforce a policy of land reform and the seizing of land by powerful local groups. In the midst of an ideological struggle between left and right, the NPC shelved a draft law that would for the first time codify property rights. In China, property, but not land, may be owned by individuals.

"We must respect farmers' wishes and avoid formalism and coercive orders," Wen said, in a clear nod to the problem.

But as one longtime Beijing scholar argues, "This isn't a problem that can be solved by talking about it.

Only the state may own land in China, and we are a long way from genuine land reform.

If a local official seizes land in the name of national interest, there is no one whot can stand in the way."

The role of the NPC

The National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament, opened a 10-day session in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Sunday. The NPC meets annually in March to pass bills, approve the budget, and endorse personnel nominations, but is generally considered a rubber stamp for the ruling Communist Party. This year's session is expected to end on March 14.

The chairman is Wu Bangguo, former vice-premier and second-most powerful person in the party. He was elected chairman in 2003, taking over from Li Peng, the hard-line premier during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Votes almost always follow the Communist Party's wishes and pass by an overwhelming majority. But delegates have historically cast negative votes to show frustration over issues such as corruption and crime.

All citizens over the age of 18 are technically allowed to vote for delegates and be elected to the NPC, but most delegates are hand-picked by local officials.

The nearly 3,000 delegates attending the session represent China's 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions, as well as Hong Kong, Macau, and the military. They serve five-year terms. A small delegation represents self-governed Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, although none of the members lives on the island or is chosen by its 23 million people.
- Reuters

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