- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

QINGGANG, China — Zhen Minxiu, 46, a factory worker here, keeps four photographs of the home where she grew up.

The first, a picture of a traditional clay-and-tile house surrounded by verdant rice paddies, is a peaceful reminder of the life she led in Yunyang County, a district of tiny farms and quiet villages in the eastern half of Chongqing.

The next three images show a backhoe reducing the building to a pile of rubble.

More than a million Chinese, including Mrs. Zhen and her two children, have already been moved to make way for the Three Gorges Dam and its mammoth reservoir. By 2009, 26 massive turbines will turn and the dam will generate enough electricity to power Shanghai, China’s largest city. Already the dam is boosting China’s economic surge.

China has earned global admiration by posting more than two decades of near double-digit economic growth and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

But progress has come at a price. Tens of millions of China’s poorest have been forced off their land, often with little or no compensation, to make room for development projects.

“When I had land I could grow my own food and was free to work when I wanted, I was happy then,” said Mrs. Zhen, whose house was razed by the government in the summer of 2002.

Widespread problems in the relocation process have spurred local anger.

Hundreds and possibly thousands of migrants — including Mrs. Zhen and a dozen other former Yunyang residents now living in Qinggang, a gritty industrial suburb of the Chongqing metropolis — were not given new land and housing, as required by government regulations, after their land was taken.

Other migrants relocated in the region are unhappy because the land they were given was of poor quality. In some cases, villagers were moved to disease-infested areas.

50 million displaced

According to government statistics, China lost 21 million acres of farmland between 1986 and 2003 and the speed at which new roads, factories, suburbs and reservoirs are devouring cropland is increasing.

As the land goes, so go the farmers: Wang Chunguang, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, estimates that 50 million Chinese farmers have been forced off their land in the past decade. Eventually, he said, the number will rise to more than 100 million, roughly a third of the U.S. population.

Because Chinese officials can take land on short notice — often with only a few weeks warning — and with “only a token compensation given to farmers,” Mr. Wang said, Beijing has been able to develop its economy faster than India, where most land is privately owned and use must be negotiated between owners and officials.

“If Beijing wants to build something,” Mr. Wang said, “they can do it very rapidly.”

But the government’s failure to provide secure property rights has also led to widespread corruption. Coupled with rapidly rising inequality between rural and urban incomes and corruption, the land seizures have led to social unrest.

An estimated 87,000 protests erupted across the country last year, according to government figures. That was up from 74,000 protests in 2004 and more than eight times more than in 1993.

At least three persons protesting the construction of a new power plant in Guangdong Province were killed in December when paramilitary forces opened fire on villagers wielding spears, knives and dynamite.

Other protests over land seizures have been so large the government had to call in soldiers to restore order.

In Yunyang County, Mrs. Zhen and the other former villagers said, problems began in 2001, when the government organized the first group of residents to move to neighboring Jiangjin County.

Each household forced to relocate because of the reservoir was legally entitled to a plot of land and a house roughly equivalent to the ones they lost and, on average, between $1,800 and $2,100 per person to pay for resettlement, said Lei Hengshun, a professor at Chongqing University.

Under a Beijing mandate, a similar amount of money was to have been given to officials in the region where migrants were placed so that services could be improved to meet the needs of the larger population, Mr. Lei said.

But few of the villagers who relocated to Jiangjin County said they received full compensation.

Local officials told them there was no land or housing available, Mrs. Zhen said. Worse, the former Yunyang residents recalled, the officials told them that if they wanted to receive any funds, they would have to sign documents stating that they had been given the land and housing.

When some villagers refused to sign, Mrs. Zhen said, officials simply signed for them. Officials in Jiangjin and Yunyang, however, deny this.

A Jiangjin Resettlement Bureau official who refused to give her name said that everyone “who was legally relocated to the county was given land and housing.”

Xiong Tongfu, a director of the Ministry of Propaganda in Yunyang County, said that local leaders had not broken any laws. “Some migrants don’t tell the truth,” he said. “They have many demands that we can’t possibly meet.”

Former Yunyang villagers said that because many of them had signed forms saying that they had received land to get compensation, it is possible that the current staff does not know about the problems.

But they also accused the two governments of corruption. Altogether, the former residents said, some 600 people relocated from Yunyang County to Jiangjin County were left homeless.

Angry migrants

With 850 million Chinese living in rural areas, the issue of land ownership is very sensitive in China. Residents of Wanzhou city said anger and hopelessness among recent migrants, many of whom had lost their land to the Three Gorges Reservoir, led to a large riot in 2004.

Mrs. Zhen became uprooted after she lost her land.

In 2003, she and several other villagers traveled halfway across China to meet with officials in charge of the Three Gorges resettlement program in Beijing.

But, according to Mrs. Zhen, the officials said they would have to deal with the Yunyang and Jiangjin County governments.

After the meeting, she said, the Beijing officials must have reported their complaint to the Yunyang government because as she was returning home, several relatives called to warn that the local police were searching for her.

To avoid arrest, Mrs. Zhen lived with her sister for three months in a neighboring town, waiting for the police to give up their search. But when she finally went home, she said she was arrested and imprisoned for 15 days for creating a “public disturbance.”

A few months after Mrs. Zhen was released from prison, she followed other villagers to Qinggang and found a job assembling plastic binoculars at a local factory. Working 12-hour days, she is able to earn $50 a month, enough to pay for her 15-year-old daughter’s school fees, as well as buy food and pay rent on a small apartment.

For now, she said, she can’t think much beyond surviving. But when she and other former Yunyang villagers have saved enough money, they plan to travel to Beijing to petition the central officials again.

“All I want,” she added, “is my land.”

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