Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
The countryside around Da Ba village in southwestern China’s Chongqing province is steep and verdant but swathed in the bitter smog of many small, coal-fired factories and power plants. These mountains are rich with veins of lignite, and because the area is only a few hours from Chongqing–the eponymous provincial capital and mega-city you’ve likely never heard of (12 million and counting)–it is dotted with small power plants, mines, quarries and cement factories that feed the metropolis.
Da Ba is in many ways a typical Chinese village. Its center has a few blocks of tightly packed two- and three-story projects of socialist-style housing nestled along a dirty creek and a cramped valley crossroads. On the edge of town, the walls of farmhouse compounds are painted with bold red characters exhorting obedience to the one-child policy.
And as in many other places in China, the farmers of Da Ba are fighting to save their land from those who want to seize it in the name of progress and profit.
Here in Da Ba, the trouble began in October 2005, when the village party secretary, Lu Cheng Cun, told more than 600 farmers they would have to sell their land to the privately owned Tian Hong Mine Ltd. so it could be excavated for coal.
The farmers refused to sell. “We could not survive on the price they offered. We could not buy other land with it,” says a woman named Chun. The protest leaders have asked that I use only their first names, and our meeting is held secretly after elaborate efforts to confuse and avoid the police.
“They said this is an important energy project and that we were getting in the way,” explains Chun. The farmers still refused. Then several leaders were jailed and beaten. The first was Yong Sam Lan, a 50-year-old woman, jailed and beaten twice. Police raided family homes, locking up and battering those they thought were ringleaders.
“They beat my mother so badly she was in hospital for two months with a brain injury,” says one of the protesting villagers, a woman in her mid-40s named Lin. In all, they say, eight of the farmers have been hospitalized from beatings by local goons, and many others have been roughed up.
Perhaps just as bad, the villagers were also prevented from working their land and thus stripped of their livelihoods. Eventually about 200 people signed away their property, but most held out and filed a lawsuit against the local authorities. For three years, through arbitration and two trials, they have fought, all the while living under intimidation from local thugs and the police.
This situation is not unique. Across China there is rising rural and urban protest–or, if you will, burgeoning class struggle. As the economy moves from Maoist socialism to a strange type of quasi-Maoist capitalism, farmers are fighting off land grabs, which, as in the case of Da Ba, are often linked to industry’s voracious appetite for space and resources. Typically, the land grabs involve local government officials working with large, mostly state-owned but partly private businesses.