China: Thousands riot against land seizure in Yunnan province

A force of 2,000 People’s Armed Police (PAP) used to suppress massive protest by villagers in China’s southwest

A total of 50 vehicles were destroyed, among them ten police cars, according to media reports, as a Yunnan protest against a government land grab turned violent. The violence first flared on Tuesday 2 November as villagers sought to stop officials and construction workers entering the disputed area where construction work on a new highway was about to start. Around 2,000 paramilitary and riot police were eventually sent to the area to re-establish control as numbers in the protest swelled to a reported 10,000.

Television footage showed hundreds of villagers in Zhaotong city, in the northeast of Yunnan province, armed with shovels and sticks, clashing with construction workers and police. The villagers insist the local government’s actions are illegal, that the land grab violates central government regulations on compensation levels and provision of temporary housing. “Our livelihoods suffered a serious blow, and there were no safeguards,” one villager with the surname Sun told Radio Free Asia.

Rumours are circulating that local government officials profited by more than 1.7 billion yuan (US$250 million) by re-selling land acquired from the villagers at a sky-high premium. A villager from Fenghuang told the South China Morning Post (5 November) that the Zhaoyang district government had forcibly requisitioned 1,300 mu (195 hectares) of farmland from Fenghuang and the nearby village of Mulu. The government had paid local residents 70,000 yuan per mu, claiming the land was needed for a road project. But the road project required only 250 mu of land, with more than 100 mu of the requisitioned land sold to a Chongqing based property conglomerate for a reported price of 1.7 million yuan per mu. Villagers suspect officials have embezzled the proceeds from the sale.

Protesting residents initially outnumbered local police. Hired security guards escorting the officials and construction workers are accused of started the violence: “The fight did not start until Liu Guanhong, a 30-year-old villager, was punched and kicked by guards when they spotted him taking pictures of their abuse of villagers,” reported the South China Morning Post. Twenty people were injured including ten policemen according to official media. Authorities in Yunnan have announced they are launching an investigation into the incident.

Land protests rising

Thousands of land-related protests occur every month in China. Qiu Feng, editor of the Defending Rights [in] China website (, said evictions and land protests are on the rise across China, as people begin to realise that the law offers them little protection when dealing with powerful local officials. “Most of the time, land acquisitions go ahead without the need for consent from local people,” he said.

Land sales are the most important source of revenue for China’s local and regional governments. The frenzied construction boom of recent years, which especially since 2008 has been driven by a flood of state-backed loans, has encouraged local governments to push up land prices using various infrastructure projects, industrial zones and deals with property developers. Rising land prices then boost government coffers. But the losers in the process are poor farmers who are driven from the land as well as the majority of ordinary citizens who can no longer afford a home at current prices. Cases of local governments acting illegally, using strong-arm methods and breaking compensation rules are legion.

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November 2010