“All the land under heaven is the emperor’s and we are all his servants” goes a classical Chinese poem in the Book of Songs.
But the people of Fuyou, a village in the southwest province of Yunnan, were not prepared to be so obedient when they saw a threat to what they perceive as land of their own.
On October 14, the villagers took up arms against a group of men apparently intent on building a logistics centre on land ‘grabbed’ by the state.
Eight people died in the clashes and 18 more were injured – the deadliest land dispute in recent memory.
So what happened?
Well, the government in Kunming, 25 kilometres away, says a group of Fuyou residents launched an attack on the construction site and kidnapped four of the building workers.
When the construction crew tried to get their colleagues back they were attacked with Molotov cocktails.
Later it is claimed that the four hostages were doused with petrol and set alight. It appears these four workers died.
Some media outlets have reported an alternate version of events, suggesting that the villagers did battle with hired goons or auxiliary police.
“Those on the other side of the clash really aren’t workers like the government said. They were hired to come here, all wearing black uniforms, black steel helmets, holding shields with police insignia and using knives and tear gas,” Century Weekly quoted a Fuyou resident as saying.
The villagers have accused the local government of trying to strong-arm them into giving up their land, as well as short-changing them on compensation. According to media reports they were offered Rmb43,000 ($7,000) each for the 1,787 mu (roughly 295 acres) of farmland wanted for the logistics centre. But there was no room for negotiation. “The government said if we don’t agree to the amount they offer there will be no money in the future,” another villager told the Beijing Times.
Land grabs of this kind have been criticised by China’s leaders, who are aware of the threat they present to social stability, as well as food security (as a consequence of the loss of arable fields).
Premier Li Keqiang in particular has stressed that only by improving farmers’ rights will China be able to increase its food production and, somewhat counter-intuitively, speed up its rate of urbanisation too.
Indeed, earlier this month the government expanded a pilot scheme which allows farmers to receive an income from land leased to larger, more efficient agricultural corporations.
In August the State Council also initiated a major land audit to try to prevent local governments from selling off their arable land illegally. Land sales garnered Rmb3.91 trillion in 2013 compared with Rmb2.67 trillion in 2012, the Global Times said, quoting Ministry of Finance data.
The government also said last week it was working on a law to allow people to sue local governments if they fail to uphold proper land transfer agreements.
“Courts should order authorities to follow contracts or give compensation for the breaches if they are confirmed to have violated a contract,” Xinhua reports.
Fuyou’s Party chief has been arrested in the aftermath of the clashes in the village on allegations of “taking bribes” and sixteen other local officials have been sacked or suspended. No further explanation has been offered. But as the Global Times pointed out in July, “governance by tyrants is most easily found in interest-intensive villages” (presumably, meaning places in which money can be made). “The leaders conspire with grass-roots officials to grab resources for themselves,” it added.
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