Written by Samantha Hoffman.
On 14 October, ‘construction workers’ wearing auxiliary police uniforms and carrying riot shields entered Fuyou village, Jinning County, Yunnan province, to confront villagers in a dispute over land the local government seized to build the Jincheng Trans-Asia Industrial Logistics Centre. The incident turned violent, leaving two villagers and six construction workers dead.
The most shocking of these deaths came after a group of villagers captured eight workers. Graphic images posted on social media showed four of these workers tied-up and kneeling on a road, with gasoline-filled bottles placed at their side. These were followed by images of pitchfork-wielding villagers standing by the workers’ now charred bodies and smashed skulls.Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that this incident, like most violent conflicts over forced land seizures in China, was preventable.
In Jinning county large scale and violent protests over land seizures have been recurring for at least two years, over both the logistics centre in Jinning village and a cultural tourism project in adjacent Guangji village. Notably, in Guangji on 22 October 2013, the arrest of an activist triggered clashes between villagers and police in which villagers held 15 police and local officials hostage. Following a night of hostilities, the villagers released the hostages when the local government agreed, among other things, to no longer carry out land expropriations. However, the government quickly went against their word and later that afternoon over 500 SWAT officers surrounded the village.
While the Jinning case is an extreme example of land grab-related violence, the case is hardly exceptional. Land grabs have been the top cause of social unrest in China for a number of years. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 2013 Social Development Blue Book said it was the issue behind at least half of China’s annual protests, which were estimated to be around 180,000 in 2010.
Land-grab protests are also more prone to result in violence than the other leading causes of protest in China, labour disputes and environmental pollution. In the majority of cases a few minor-to-severe injuries are reported, but a notable number of instances have led to IED and arson attacks carried out by disgruntled villagers, as well as suicide protests. The tendency toward violence in these cases is likely because of the debilitating impact land grab disputes can have on rural populations who rely on the land for their livelihood.
At the crux of most disputes is the issue of unpaid compensation and under compensation. Local governments may offer compensation that is fair on paper and agreeable with local residents, but all too often the compensation for expropriations is never fully paid. This was apparently the case in Fuyou village.
State media cited a Jinning county official who claimed that the government engaged in a negotiation process with the Fuyou village committee on the expropriation issue between 2011 and 2012, and compensation was paid to local residents. Fuyou villagers were promised a total compensation amount of US$33.6 million, or about US$18,813 per mu  for the 1,787.3 mu project. According to another state media report, only about US$29.43 million has been paid to Fuyou villagers— the remaining US$4.1 million has gone missing.
For those affected, the consequences of a land-grab related compensation dispute could be severe. In 2009, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Yu Jianrong estimated that 50-60 million rural residents have been impacted by land grabs since the reform era began in 1979, and that around 50% of them have been left unemployed and without sufficient social security as a result.
While the central government calls for stability above all else, Chinese land law does not favour victims. In rural areas like Jinning County, the Household Responsibility System separates land use rights from land ownership. Furthermore, the 2007 Property Law allots each rural household a piece of land for building a house, but sale or transfer of this property for any non-agricultural purposes is prohibited. Local officials, however, are permitted to acquire this land for local development projects under the Land Administration Law, which also specifies compensation requirements and specifically prohibits embezzlement of any compensation fees.
Chinese law only allows land acquisitions when development projects are in the public’s best interest, but the catch is that local authorities ultimately determine “interests”. Authorities may not always be wrong in their prioritising of interests, but because the country’s political and legal systems do not guarantee a transparent process, villagers are inherently weakened.
Moreover, the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) cadre evaluation system further undermines villagers’ position. Even though the central government prioritises stability because it is closely linked to the CCP’s legitimacy, local governments tend to prioritise economic performance over stability. Despite the social cost of land grabs, an economic development project could be a major source of local revenue. The Fuyou logistics centre, for example, would focus on the potentially lucrative hardware, building materials, auto parts and motorcycle parts businesses.
The evaluation system also penalises officials for unrest, so officials attempt to cover-up these records. If petitioners seek intervention from legal and higher-level authorities, they risk harassment by police or local government-hired security companies, including beatings and imprisonment in illegal jails. If protesters attempt to physically block forced acquisitions, the government-contracted security and construction workers carry out the land grabs with force. The central government rarely intervenes directly.
Land grab protests, while frequent, do not immediately threaten regime stability due to their localised nature. Shortly after the Fuyou village clash, state media said 17 officials had been punished over the clash, one was arrested and 16 were reprimanded for neglect of duty. A further 6 employees of a construction firm and 15 villagers were arrested. An investigation is also under way into the incident and the missing US$4 million in compensation funds. Unfortunately for Jinning County, these actions are too little too late. If the CCP is seeking long-term legitimacy, the Chinese government at all levels must engage in a wide variety of long-term policy overhauls.
Perhaps the legal process has slowly started, but due to factors including corruption, it would appear that no serious improvement is imminent. On 1 November 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted an amendment to the country’s Administrative Procedure Law. It takes effect on 1 May 2015 and is targeted at increasing citizens’ rights to sue the government for violating agreements on land and housing compensation. State media presented the legislation as an effort that would “effectively promote the officials’ awareness of the rule of law. If legal mechanisms ensure that compensation is adequately and fairly dispersed, the law could reduce land-related unrest. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than a concept.
Samantha Hoffman is an independent China Analyst and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar, while also working on her PhD at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. She tweets @he_shumei.
Guangji and Fuyou villages are located about a half mile apart.
One acre of land is equal to about six Chinese mu.
Vince Wong, “Land Policy Reform in China: Dealing with forced Expropriation and the Dual Tenure System”, Centre for Comparative and Public Law Occasional Paper No. 25, Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong, May 2014: 4.