Thursday, 25 March 2010

I got news of the drought in China a couple of days ago, but it seems like it has been going on for a lot longer. Strange how details rarely emerge from that insular country.

I came across a story on The Guardian's website to do - not unexpectedly - with censorship, which spurred me into a bit of research. The story combined my interest in the drought with my interest in fruit trees (I wrote a feature story on peaches, which was published two months ago).

It seems that the drought had caused the local authorities in Ningbao county, Henan province, to take drastic action. According to Oiwan Lam, writing on the Global Voices Advocacy blog in April 2009, authorities incarcerated a man living in Shanghai because he put up a post about land requisitions in the locality, where his parents lived.

The reason for the jail time was defamation against the Ningbao government, which objected to Wang Shuai's vocal objection to their rapacity.

Authorities, it seems, had tried to reduce the amount of compensation due in cases of requisitioning land by cutting down fruit trees - in this case apples - on the land. They claimed that a reduced drought compensation payment owing to farmers was due to the fruit trees having been cut down. In fact, they were simply trying to get the land cheaply so it could be rented out to developers.

According to land requisition law, the compensation for land with crops and trees is much higher than abandoned land.

The post implies that the local government has not been fighting drought, instead, they tried to ruin the land in order to pay less compensation to the peasant in land requisition.

Wang went further, however, accusing the local government of defrauding residents out of money.

But Wang disclosed that back in May 2008, the local government [...] illegally “rent[ed] out” the 2.8 hectare[s of] land for an industrial zone, affecting more than 30 thousand peasants. According to the [government], the peasants would be paid RMB 1000 (equivalent to USD 130) annually per mu (660 square meter[s]) for renting their land[,] for [a period of] 30 years. In order to speed up the process, the government would give [a] 3 [percent] bonus to th[os]e peasants who clear[ed] the[ir] land for the development. However, some peasants found out that the “long term renting” arrangement [was] illegal and they started to [...] petition [a] higher level [of] government. [The] Ningbao government then raised the annual rent to RMB 1200 per mu.

Ningbao famers were not only being cheated in the rental agreement, but they would also lose income otherwise earned from growing produce. For apples, Lam writes, a farmer could expect to earn 7000 to 8000 RMB per mu annually. For vegetables, the income per mu could be up to 15,000 or 20,000 RMB annually.

Wang was arrested in Shanghai on 6 March and detained in Shanghai police station for three days, then he was transferred with handcuffs to Ningbao on 10 March and detained for 5 more days. In order bail out Wang, his family was forced to cut all their fruit trees [on] their land.

It seems that drought was an excuse being used by local authorities to expropriate land that could then be rented out in a cosy deal to an industrial enterprise. Wang's case is rare, but due to official news organ Xinhua's tight control of information, the likelihood of such stories escaping China is low. This one got out because one brave individual decided to use the internet to publish his grievances.

Pic credit: Global Voices Advocacy blog.

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