China's street fights

A growing number of land conflicts have occurred in China over the past year, as rising property values cause developers to become more aggressive about forcing so-called 'land transfers'.

On January 12, in Longya village, Guangxi province, a conflict between police and local demonstrators over a land dispute ended with at least 11 officers and seven villagers injured and some 50 demonstrators arrested. Brewing over the last four years, the dispute originated with the county government’s attempt in 2006 to acquire land for an industrial park. Two-thirds of the villagers who held long-term leases on the land eventually took the issue to court, claiming that the compensation offered by the government was too low.

A drawn-out court battle ensued, and 12 village leaders were called to testify last week in the Guilin Municipal Court. Before they arrived at the court, however, all of them were arrested for "obstructing public works.” Soon after the arrests, a hundred or more villagers surrounded police and demanded that their neighbours be released. At some point police opened fire on the protesters, later claiming they had shot into the crowd in self-defence after being attacked with rocks, knives and clubs and firing warning shots. We suspect that the local government and police colluded with the developers to prevent the village leaders from testifying.

The incident is one of an increasing number of land conflicts that have occurred in China over the past year. As property values continue to rise, developers are becoming more aggressive about forcing so-called "land transfers.” Even government officials and police are getting involved in removing land-holders from their leased properties so the land can be developed. Local officials are becoming more eager to conduct these land transfers because taxes on the transfers are a primary source of government revenue (as are bribes from developers). In 2009, local government revenue from land transfers in China amounted to 1.5 trillion yuan (about $US220 billion).

Under Chinese law, all land in rural areas is owned by the state or local collectives, which in turn lease properties to rural land-holders for 30 to 70 years (mainly for agricultural purposes). But the government has the authority to arrest any land-holder who refuses to accept a non-negotiable monetary offer to rescind the lease or refuses to vacate the premises. As land-transfer pressure intensifies, local land-holders are starting to respond more aggressively to the tactic.

Two other incidents over the past week highlight this growing conflict. On January 18, in Pizhou, Jiangsu province, police arrested 30 people, including the village party secretary, for their involvement in violence over a land transfer in Pizhou. The incident occurred on January 7, when more than 200 thugs hired by local officials escorted bulldozers to Hewan village for a construction project. Local officials have been trying to transfer the land for nearly two years, but villagers who lease the land say the compensation offered is too low.

In the ensuing clash between villagers and police, one person was stabbed and killed. Later that day, at least 2,000 people protested the death of their 21-year-old neighbour, holding banners inscribed with such statements as "Forced occupation of land, hiring thugs to kill villagers.” Some of the protesters were beaten by police. Interestingly, the party official arrested may have had links to the developers.

On January 14, near Changyuan in Henan province, farmers blocked provincial highway 308 in response to a land grab in Yangzhuang village. A property development company called "Great Wall” had sent tractors in the night before to remove structures, crops and trees on the land that it wanted to develop. Farmers tried to stop the tractors but were beaten by hired thugs, and two of the farmers were seriously injured. A month earlier the company had done the same thing in a nearby village.

Land conflicts have always existed in China, but they have grown to a point where Beijing is now considering land-law reform (they have considered this for years, but due to increasing social instability over this issue coupled with the economic crisis, such considerations have been raised yet again and there seems to be more urgency now than in the past when these issues were discussed). It is unclear how fast this discussion will proceed, and no changes are likely to happen in 2010. But STRATFOR sources believe the law eventually will be changed to better protect land-holders. Meanwhile, local governments will continue to use legal tools to get their way. And even if the law is ultimately changed, its real effect will be seen in how it is enforced at the local level.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world. Check out Stratfor's new iPhone app, which includes all its content and analysis downloaded to your phone. Click here for more information.

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