China hands stiff sentences to 27 farmers over land seizure protest

Monday, January 24, 2005

BEIJING — A Chinese court has handed stiff sentences to 27 farmers who protested the confiscation of their fields. The sentences come as the government struggles to deal with a rising tide of sometimes violent protests by farmers angry over what they allege are illegal land seizures by government-backed developers.

For months, a group of farmers camped outside the local headquarters of the Communist Party in Sanchawan village, in China's Shaanxi province. The farmers were protesting plans by developers to seize their land and pay only $60 each in compensation.

The farmers said the compensation from the government-backed developers was too small, and the seizure was illegal.

Five months into the sit-in, paramilitary police descended on the village and arrested the group for charges including obstructing traffic and attacking government agencies. The detainees' sentencing came last week. Relatives of those arrested say some received sentences of two to six years, while a man accused of leading the demonstration was ordered to spend 15 years in prison.

The sentencing has drawn protests from overseas human rights advocates like Nicholas Becquelin of the New York-based Human Rights in China group, who says the government has recently tried to stop the protests from spreading by imposing a general ban on news coverage of land seizures.

He said the authorities are hoping the stiff sentences will discourage others from protesting.

"The government is sending a message to petitioners and protesters, saying that if they resort to this kind of demonstrations that the Communist party does not allow, they will be seriously punished," said Mr. Becquelin.

China's economy is booming and cases like the one in Shaanxi province are becoming more common, with more peasants losing their farmland to make way for development projects backed by local governments.

Officials estimate 70 million people have lost their land to the construction of roads, dams, housing projects and factories. Analysts predict that number will continue rising as the economy continues to expand.

As the economy grows, so do the disparities between rich and poor. The central government says the latest figures, from the year 2003, show farmers' per capita disposable income totaled about a third of that of urban dwellers.

Despite the government's assertion last year that rural incomes are growing, many of China's 800 million farmers live in deep poverty. Under China's socialist system, farmers cannot own the land they till, but rather lease it from the state. Plots are small and yield barely enough for families to eat.

Local officials have the power to make decisions on the land, leaving peasants little recourse should the officials choose to seize their plots.

Anger at the seizures has fueled desperation among peasants who complain they have not benefited from China's economic growth in the same way as people along the industrialized East Coast.

Some demonstrations have turned deadly. Last November, government troops opened fire and killed a number of protesters in a remote part of Sichuan province, where thousands of residents were protesting the seizure of their land for construction of a hydroelectric dam project.