Chinese villagers driven off land fear food may run out

In one shaky mobile phone video, dozens of farmers armed with shovels lash out at people off camera. In another, an angry mob batters a corrugated iron fence round a development site. Further clips show a man lying injured on the ground and people shouting: “Call an ambulance.”

Images of the violent conflicts in the village of Xujiancheng in Hebei province earlier this year were given to the Guardian last week by residents who want to draw the Chinese government’s attention to what they say is a fight for their legal rights and the nation’s food security.

The villagers are involved in a six-year protest against a development company that is trying to requisition their crop land for bag-making factories and residential housing. The farmers say they have been forced to give up their harvests for inadequate compensation.

“The developer hired 200 to 300 thugs to come and fight with us,” said a man, who only gave his surname, Gao, because he feared retribution. “I was made to sign away my land. If I hadn’t, the gangsters would have beaten me.” He said six people had been hospitalised in the clashes in January. Demonstrations continue today.

Propaganda officials at Baigou township, which oversees this area about two hours’ drive from Beijing, and a local development office either declined to respond to these accusations or said they were unaware of any conflict.

Stories of forced evictions and bloody protests in rural China have been commonplace in recent years as cities sprawl outwards and more land is needed for industrial parks, housing blocks, roads and railways.

Many farmers believe local officials are in cahoots with developers to cheat them of fair compensation and a share of the surge in the land’s value when it is recategorised for commercial use. This is a common complaint among the protesters in Xujiancheng, who have smashed the windows in the developer’s office, torn down walls erected round their requisitioned farmland and spread protest banners across fences near the building site. In the fiercest protests in January, they carried two empty coffins to the frontline to show their willingness to die.

But this is not a simple case of impoverished farmers being dispossessed. Although they earn only 9,000 yuan (£855) a year for each mu (1/16 hectare) of crop land, most seem to get considerably larger incomes from second jobs, including – in one man’s case – buying and selling handbags made in the factories they are protesting against. Several protesters drove new Mazda saloons.

They say their land is a necessary backup to provide food for themselves and for the nation.

“It’s true that we could make more money as factory workers, but the land is our safety net. Even if we have only a little land, we will be able to eat. Without it, we have to be concerned about the possibility of food running out,” said a farmer named Huang from the neighbouring village of Huaziying, which is also caught up in the dispute. Huang said he had recently starting hoarding corn because he is worried about the global food supply system at a time of natural disasters, political instability, rising prices and declining crop land.

“We think the central government will support us,” he said. “The state has a good policy to protect arable land. We wouldn’t be fighting if we didn’t believe they would be on our side.” One hopeful protest banner reads: “We welcome the National Resource Department to come and inspect this area.”

Huang shows a photocopy of state council policy document 47 from 2010, which outlines the national guidelines on urban development. One passage states: “It is forbidden to convert farmland to other uses, regardless of the excuse.” But other sections spell out how to relocate rural residents.

This underlines the contradictions and challenges facing development in China, which wants to modernise and industrialise while maintaining a high degree of self-sufficiency in food. To feed a fifth of humanity on a 10th of the world’s arable land, the government says at least 120m hectares must be set aside for agricultural production.

But urbanisation and desertification have eroded this base, despite efforts to offset the losses through the conversion of wetlands into paddy fields in Heilongjiang and elsewhere. Two years ago, government officials said they were within 1% of this red line.

Even this may be optimistic. “The bottom line has been broken. The released statistics about farmland are inaccurate,” said lawyer Wang Cailiang, an expert on property disputes. “In 10 years, we have lost 900m mu (60m hectares) of agriculture land. The central government’s policy on this is empty.”

The problem, he says, is that the local leaders’ promotion prospects are determined by their success in promoting urban development.

Tang Jun, a rural affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed there was a question mark over the baseline for agricultural land, because urbanisation was sprawling out into the countryside rather than being concentrated around big cities .

“In China, we are building towns everywhere and anywhere. This occupies a lot of agriculture land,” he said. “Local governments consider their own interests more than the overall situation. They make a show of following the central government’s agriculture land protection policy, but in reality they do the opposite.”

Despite the pressures on the land, China has maintained a high degree of food self-sufficiency by modernising agricultural practices and using more growth stimulants and chemical fertiliser to improve productivity. Some analysts argue that the baseline for agricultural land could be profitably lowered if cheaper food was imported from overseas, but this is contentious in a country where many remember the famines of the 1960s, which killed tens of millions of people. The issues of food and land remain highly charged.

Prime minister Wen Jiabao has acknowledged the widespread resentment at illegal land seizures, and promised to punish corrupt officials. In March, the government launched its latest campaign to halt the practice.

“Some local authorities are blindly encouraging the expansion of urban construction in the pursuit of economic interests, all the while damaging farmers’ rights and undermining social stability,” Yun Xiaosu, vice-minister of land and resources, was quoted as saying in the newspaper China Daily.

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