Apr 08, 2014 06:47 PM

Closer Look: Farmer's Death Shows Problem with Land Seizures, Lack of Checks on Power

(Beijing) – The killing of a farmer in a village in the eastern province of Shandong has shed light on two issues at the heart of land disputes in China: illegal acquisitions and a lack of checks on local government power.

Geng Fulin, 62, died on March 21 after the head of Dujiatuan Village and the boss of a building company allegedly told five others to torch a tent Geng and others set up in protest against a land seizure. Three other farmers were hurt in the fire, two critically. Authorities said on April 3 they arrested the seven suspects.

At issue is nearly 270 hectare parcel of land in Dujiatuan, a village that is administered by Pingdu City. The project is owned by Qingdao Chengyuan Tianye Property Development Co. and involves the building of residential properties, a commercial complex and entertainment facilities.

Geng's death prompted about 70 farmers from the area to travel to Shandong's capital, Jinan, with two requests. They first asked the province's land department to release documents about the 2006 land requisition in Dujiatuan. Villagers said they were not fully informed of the land seizure. They also asked a Central Discipline Inspection Commission team that happened to be working in the area to make sure that people responsible for violence are held accountable. The commission is the Communist Party's anti-corruption watchdog.

The first appeal reflects problems regarding the legitimacy of the land seizure. The farmers say the government of Pingdu broke several laws in the process. The say the government never announced the land was being taken, how much property was involved or how compensation would be arranged.

Officials faked the signatures of villagers on land transfer documents so the deal could proceed without their knowledge, said Li Rongmao, a former employee of the party committee in Dujiatuan said. That committee is the ruling Communist Party's top authority in the village.

One of the two "village representatives" whose signature appeared on the documents died in 1969, Dujiatuan villagers said. The other never existed.

The situation could never have occurred if there were checks on the local government's power. The tension in Pingdu has been growing for years, meaning the government had plenty of time to properly handle the matter.

Illegal land acquisitions and demolitions have become a major source of social unrest in China. These conflicts involve complicated power struggles involving government officials, villagers and developers that often takes place outside the legal system. This is because the law not only fails to provide a legal guarantee for farmers to use the land they depend on for survival, but it also fails to rein in local officials, so much so that officials often hire thugs to help them carry out seizures and evictions.

The problems revealed by the Pingdu case are common. Similar episodes have happened countless times across the nation in recent years. The deaths last year of three farmers in the inland provinces of Henan, Hubei and Sichuan during protests over similar land seizures prompted action by the central government. In May 2013, the Ministry of Land and Resources warned officials around the country to enforce rules against illegal land grabs.

Yet the situation in Pingdu shows that the problem persists. This is true largely because land in some villages has become more valuable as the country urbanizes, and local governments depend on the income from transferring that land to developers. Farmers complain they have little say in the process and do not get enough compensation for the land.

The dispute comes down to one structural problem: the state views farmers as users rather than owners of the land they live and farm on, said Wang Yong, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in the capital.

In the current system, the ownership of land for farming and building homesteads is held by the village collective and farmers only hold the right to use it. The law sets compensation for requisitioned farmland at a lump sum equivalent to six to eight years of revenue from farm yields. The deals see farmers give up their user rights. They also cannot benefit from any increase in value of the land.

In Pingdu, the government gave farmers up to 50,000 yuan for each mu (about 666 square meters) of land. That land was then sold to developers for more than 1 million yuan.

There have been calls from the central government to amend the law on land requisition and compensation schemes, and reform the urbanization process to give farmers greater say. But such grand plans take time to implement and have no immediate effect on the problems facing the millions of villagers in Pingdu and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, more effective mechanisms must be established to improve the rule of law at local levels to hold officials, especially the head of villages, counties and cities, accountable. The villagers in Shandong have appealed to higher authorities. Now it is time for the government to listen to its people.

(Rewritten by Niu Muge)

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