Unrest grows in rural China over land grabs

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Si Xiaoyan weeps as she tells how her husband, Liu Huirong, was sentenced to five years in jail for taking part in riots last year in the eastern Chinese town of Huaxi over the illegal granting of land rights to 13 chemical plants.

"I miss him," says Ms Si, 31, tears streaming from behind her glasses as we sit in a brick farmhouse in the town in Zhejiang province.

Her sorrow is in contrast to the jubilation in the village in April last year, when 30,000 farmers stopped 1,500 police from entering Huaxi and the farmers won the battle. Huaxi became famous among activists in China, one of the first of many disturbances as rampant industrialisation led to clashes between the authorities and those left behind by development - the farmers and migrant workers who make up two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people.

"They made him kneel for four days and four nights. His knees are a mess now. But he stood up in court and said so," she said.

Around the stout square table sit Ms Si's father-in-law and other families of the nine people sentenced for rioting in Huaxi when the authorities came to destroy roadblocks erected by villagers to block deliveries to and from the factories. Villagers said the factories were poisoning their crops, causing miscarriages and making their children sick.

Of the nine villagers sentenced, four received suspended sentences, which are not often served in China. All nine said they were tortured in custody.

Most of the factories are now ghostly, abandoned shells and a gang of corrupt officials have been sacked. But increasingly it looks like the local people lost the war.

The farmhouse is just off Huaxi's main street, where the riot took place last April. It was a scene of great destruction, leaving scores of buses and cars overturned, the streets strewn with bricks and rubble. Today, new brick walls stand where old ones were torn down during the disturbances.

On the way to the village in April we were stopped by police. The atmosphere is different in Huaxi now and in the nearby city of Dongyang. We are again stopped by police outside Dongyang - but this time it is for a speeding ticket, not to be detained for reporting on the riot.

Mr Liu's father, Liu Rongtian, 58, is a model of politeness, passing around tea, cigarettes and fruit.

"For us, nothing is over," says Ms Si. Like all the families of those jailed in January, she insists her husband is innocent. They have a six-year-old son, Liu Yujie, and she is worried about what will become of him.

"This September he starts primary school, and already the other children have begun to tease him that his father is a criminal," she said. "Right and wrong have been turned upside down. Here, right has become wrong and wrong has become right."

In a sign of how sensitive the Huaxi rioting became, the Zhejiang provincial government took the rare step of punishing eight officials from Dongyang and Huaxi in December for failing to "preserve social harmony".

The story is an example of how China's booming economy, as well as lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, has also generated unrest. Last year 87,000 serious disturbances to public order were recorded, a rise of almost 7 per cent.

The ruling Communist Party is alarmed by the wave of rural anger sparked by loss of land and complaints of inadequate compensation. Some 800 million farmers and others are residents of rural China, earning around 70p a day. Their average annual income is about £250, less than one-third of what people earn in the cities.

The situation is getting so serious that the government has made the rural/ urban divide one of the focal points of this month's annual parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC). In his opening speech to the congress, Premier Wen Jiabao said the government would spend £24bn on upgrading agriculture and billions more on social services for rural residents, as part of Beijing's plan for a "new socialist countryside".

The NPC is a largely ceremonial event to celebrate the triumph of socialism with Chinese characteristics. A throwback to the Cold War, it takes place in the Great Hall of the People, which is bedecked with red flags and rings with Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.

Hundreds of miles away from the pomp of the Great Hall, the struggle is far from over for the dispossessed of Huaxi. Asked if, now that the factories are shut down, there had been some kind of resolution, Liu Rongtian said: "Nothing is over."