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China 2007: The Year of The Peasants’ Revolt (cont’d)

Posted by Author on January 7, 2008

John Garnaut, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, January 5, 2008- (cont’d)

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Peasants in Yu’s village say they do not understand the concept of private ownership, let alone demand it. They are content to continue the system of collective ownership and individual farming rights. They are not closely linked with activists in other villages, let alone other provinces, and they are fiercely proud that China is hosting the Olympics.

Further, Yu’s son notes that his father is in effect illiterate.

But if Yu and his mysterious ghost writer had intended to unite peasants and make enough smoke to attract the country’s attention, then they have succeeded.

“In 10 years Yu has been our only hope,” says one village elder. “But now he’s in custody, we’re beginning to unite ourselves.”

Yu’s village is close to Fujin city, on China’s extreme north-east frontier. Russian Siberia lies just 60 kilometres away on the other side of two massive frozen rivers. Perhaps it is the cold, or the distance, but there can be few corners of the country where Beijing’s peasant-friendly rhetoric is so consistently and brazenly ignored.

Peasants have been the perennial losers in a 15-year, provincial cover-up of a project that started as a legitimate but misguided joint venture with a South Korean development entity and should have been aborted at the start – or at least when the joint venture partner walked away a decade ago.

Instead, each face-saving mistake has required an ever-more elaborate layer of tyranny to extort the money to pay back the debts of the previous mistake, and to prevent news getting out.

In 1995 Han Yin, then Fujin’s party secretary, told the then provincial governor, Tian Fengshan, that the agricultural project’s deep-seated woes had been caused by a map.

“It was an old map used before the 1980s,” said Han’s report, later obtained by affected peasants. “This caused a series of problems. The main problem is that most of the land is no longer wilderness.”

Tian, who did not act on Han’s report for two years, has since been jailed for corruption. One of his schemes was an auction of bureaucratic posts, where promotions were handed out to the highest bidder.

In 1997 the provincial government washed its hands of the project by transferring much of the appropriated land to the Fujin city government.

The Fujin officials acted like bandits when the party secretary sent his military police chief, Ma Chengxi, and his henchmen to enforce evictions and land transfers. One villager, An Fengzhen, still has an X-ray showing where a bullet lodged inside her skull.

Wang Xuejun, a villager who has since moved to Shandong, says Ma and Ge Qingxia, the city’s deputy party secretary, transferred vast tracts of farmland into their own names and started billing the peasants for rent.

“I have seen a copy of a rent receipt signed by Ge Qingxia,” says Wang. “It’s unimaginable for a government leader in China to have such a large amount of land in their own name.”

At Dongnangang, the land was carved in half and the best portion given to an unknown landlord. “They brought in peasants from Toulin town to farm the land,” says the village chief.

The land loss caused per capita incomes to drop by more than half, to about 2500 yuan.

Jon Unger, director of the Contemporary China Centre at the Australian National University, who has been studying land issues for decades, says the crudity and brazen nature of this land appropriation is extraordinary. “This is about as bad as I’ve seen.”

Through it all, Fujin officials have done everything they can to stop news getting out. One busload of villagers who tried to take their complaint to the petition office in Beijing never made it out of Fujin. They tried to explain that they were acting lawfully, but all they heard was one order: “fight”. Several were taken to hospital, most were left to tend to their own injuries in jail, says Wang Xuejun.

For the Fujin fiefdom to function requires that no information gets out, even at the cost of little coming in, and that the provincial government looks the other away. But Yu Changwu’s internet letter and some new high-level appointments might be breaking down that delicate bubble.

At the Fujin Public Security Bureau, where the Herald was being detained and interrogated, nobody was aware that reports of Yu’s letter were freely available on the internet. The Herald offered to direct officers to China’s year-old rules allowing foreign reporters to travel freely, only to be told sheepishly that there was no internet connection.

Later, the Herald was summoned to a luxury Fujin hotel room to meet a polite, stylish deputy mayor, who was part of the city’s new leadership team. “First, welcome to Fujin, the mayor hopes you enjoy your stay,” he said, over a cup of tea. “Two, next time you come to Fujin you must first report to us, so we can help you with your interviews.”

Questions about land and Yu Changwu were to go through “proper channels”. There are signs those channels may one day facilitate the flow of information, rather than only obstruct it. On Thursday the foreign affairs office in the next city, Jiamusi, said it was urgently investigating and would like to answer questions and ask some of its own.

Yu Gang, the son of Yu Changwu, is not sure how he is going to get back his land and his crazy-brave father, but he is sure it will happen. “My dream is to get my land back so I can work it, and to be reunited with my family,” he says.

with Sanghee Liu

Original report from The Sydney Morning Herald

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