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.
"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.
Challenging a key Communist tenet
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."