Today, Reuters reports that Chinese authorities in central Shaanxi province have detained three peasants who led a campaign to reclaim land. The three were among six farmers who signed an open letter, purportedly on behalf of 70,000 others. “We reject the previous form of collective ownership,” the letter states. “It cannot guarantee the farmers’ permanent rights to the land . . . and cannot prevent the illegal infringement by officials and thugs.”
The three peasants have been charged with “inciting to subvert state power,” and it’s not hard to see why. In what could be the most significant development in China this year, peasants across the country in the last few weeks are declaring that they, and not the state or its collectives, own the fields they till and the orchards they tend. Similar declarations have been made in the last two weeks in the provincial-level city of Tianjin and the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jiangsu.
Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 on promises of land redistribution. He made good on his word by breaking up the holdings of landlords, but he soon confiscated all land for the state in the 1950s. Local peasants, on their own initiative, brought back the concept of individual farming in the early 1980s, but they never obtained title to the soil. Now, they want to complete the process and own the land they occupy. If successful, they will put an end to socialism in the countryside.
It’s not that the agricultural poor are highminded. They merely want what is theirs. In the last decade predatory officials have, in the name of development, grabbed peasant land with little or no compensation but almost always for their personal benefit. Land seizures are undoubtedly the biggest cause of unrest—sometimes in the form of pitched battles between peasants and thugs hired by local governments—in China today.
Beijing vows that the countryside will be stable in 2008. Yesterday, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the central government’s State Council concluded their annual central rural work conference with the usual pledges to aid the peasantry, including a ten-point program. In addition, on Saturday the Ministry of Finance announced a pilot program to provide in three agricultural provinces subsidies covering 13 percent of the cost of color televisions, refrigerators, and mobile phones.
The Chinese will gladly take handouts, but central government technocrats are mistaken if they think they can prevent peasants from taking what they have demanded for generations—the right to own land. And there are others who are also deluded: we are about to witness, once again, the world’s poor conclusively prove to Western analysts that socialism is not sustainable.