China's Shangpu village fights back over land grab

Villagers in Shangpu are venting their anger over a land deal

Nearly 2,000km (1,200 miles) away from the communist leadership gathering in Beijing, a small village on China's southern coast serves as a potent reminder of the challenges facing the senior party ranks.

As you approach Shangpu in Guangdong province, its relevance to the shifting sands of Chinese politics is not immediately apparent.

In the surrounding fields, barefoot farmers ankle-deep in water still work the rice paddies, as if oblivious to the dizzying economic and social change shaking other parts of this country.

But a few days ago a harsh reality came knocking.

Shangpu descended into violence when a group of men turned up, seemingly intent on forcing the 3,000 or so villagers who live here to fall in line and accept the sale of some of their farmland to a developer.

'Grab our land'

Mobile phone footage of the incident shows stone-throwing, running battles and someone firing a handgun into the air.

Start Quote

This is not about economic growth - this is simply about using force to grab our land”

End Quote Shangpu villager

The locals fought back, forced the attackers to leave and are now manning their own makeshift checkpoints on every road into the village.

The say their unelected village chief illegally signed the land deal on their behalf at a rock bottom price without proper consultation.

The contract, a copy of which they showed me, paves the way for the conversion of some of their most productive land into a green-field industrial site for a new factory, earmarked to produce electric cables.

An overturned car in Shangpu village, Guangdong province, China, March 2013 Cars were overturned as the two sides clashed

Fearing further reprisals for their opposition to the deal, no villager is prepared to be photographed individually or to give their names.

"This is not about economic growth," one man tells me. "This is simply about using force to grab our land."

The main street in Shangpu is now littered with the wrecks of the vehicles that the attackers were forced to leave behind, some upturned on their roofs.

The authorities have asked to be allowed in to clean up the mess, but the villagers say they will only allow that to happen once all original copies of the land contract have been returned to them.

Rallying cry

Shangpu is simply the latest example of the anger simmering across China's vast countryside, with some estimates suggesting that many hundreds of thousands of farmers are dispossessed of their land each year.

Villagers march in protest in Wukan on 15 December 2012 Villagers faced off with officials in Wukan in late 2011 over a land grab, in a high-profile protest

Much of China's rural land is still collectively owned, one of the last remaining communist principles to survive intact.

But it is a principle that is increasingly in conflict with China's burgeoning capitalist economy.

Government officials, all the way down the chain, are heavily incentivised to boost economic growth in their areas and promotion often depends upon it.

Add corruption into the mix, with some bureaucrats ready to divvy up profits with developers, and China's farmers with their hard-to-enforce collective rights often do not stand a chance.

Fifteen months ago, not far from Shangpu, the village of Wukan erupted over similar accusations of illegal land expropriation. And there are many thousands of other protests, albeit on a smaller scale, each year.

For now, these protests remain disconnected, but may one day present a wider challenge.

"We strongly request legal, democratic elections," read one of the banners in Shangpu, strung between two lamp posts above the bashed-up cars.

It is very clearly a demand for local reform, nothing grander, but it is nonetheless a rallying cry with troubling connotations for the party elite now meeting in Beijing.

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