April 13, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Peter S. Goodman,
Washington Post: The news came bluntly, with
an announcement over the village public address system.
The town government was taking most of the farmland
and selling it to a developer. In place of the wheat
covering these flatlands of northern China, a golf course
would take shape, along with hundreds of new villas
and a luxury hotel.
Wang Jijing and his family were baffled and afraid.
They are peasants in modern-day China, where the old
state supports of communism have largely been dismantled.
Land remains the only guaranteed sustenance. Now, it
was being removed.
"We just didn't understand what to do, what to
make of it," said Wang, who has lived here in western
Shandong province for all of his 57 years -- a span
that has led from Chairman Mao's peasant-led revolution
to this new era, in which Communist Party officials
pull up in Audi sedans to hit little balls across soil
once reserved for food. "I thought, 'No money?
No land? How can we live?' "
Two years later, several of the officials who engineered
the land deal have been investigated and reprimanded
by the party, yet the project has gone on. A brick wall
separates the village from its former farmland. On one
side, peasants such as Wang live in crumbling homes
set around courtyards with corn drying in the sun. They
pedal bicycles down a dirt road in canvas shoes worn
to holes. On the other, sales agents in blazers and
loafers guide prospective buyers across the marble floors
of the 215 new villas, their balconies overlooking lawns
marked with picket fences and beyond to the shimmering
China is in the midst of an unprecedented real estate
boom, one that has remade cities and rural areas alike.
Yet the way in which this golfing estate came to life
here in the Yellow River valley highlights the underbelly
of this development: Local party officials are exploiting
enduring control over land, seizing parcels illegally
from farmers and funneling them to developers in deals
often lubricated by kickbacks. The project shows how
much of China's new wealth is being created at the direct
expense of its poorest people.
Last year alone, nearly 10,000 square miles of farmland
-- an area roughly the size of Maryland -- was lost
to development, according to the official China Daily
newspaper. That was one and a half times as much as
was eliminated the previous year.
In recent months, alarmed by widespread accounts of
questionable land deals and a growing income gap between
city-dwellers and peasants, President Hu Jintao and
Premier Wen Jiabao have trained attention on addressing
these problems. Last year, the Ministry of Land and
Resources punished officials involved in some 168,000
cases of illegal land transfers, twice the number in
2002, according to government figures.
Yet the case in Shandong underscores the difficulties
of limiting abuse. Provincial authorities confront pressure
to secure the funds needed to provide government services
and pay salaries. Selling farmland to developers is
a lucrative channel, even as it often violates central
government regulations: Roughly one-third of the country's
3,837 development zones and industrial parks are technically
illegal, lacking the required approval, according to
Golf courses have become particularly fertile ground
for illegality. In a country in which Maoist piety was
long ago displaced by the pursuit of wealth, golf has
become a coveted status symbol. China now has 176 golf
courses, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources,
with only 10 officially approved by the central government.
Perhaps 1,000 new courses are under construction, according
to a report on China Central Television. Last month,
Beijing formally banned the development of new courses
while ordering investigations into those already underway.
For the Wang family, the arrival of golf to Qihe county
signaled that their lives were about to change again.
After the Communists took power in 1949, Wang's family
farmed the land as part of a state-mandated collective,
with labor conducted in organized brigades. Food was
rationed by bureaucratic formula, without any connection
to individual effort.
As that system broke down in the early 1980s, new leadership
in Beijing embraced market reforms as a way to boost
production. Wang and his family were given household
plots to farm as they saw fit -- nearly half an acre
per person. They could no longer rely on access to seeds
and fertilizers without paying for them, but now they
were free to grow melons and vegetables they could sell
for cash in the provincial capital of Jinan, about 60
miles away. They still had to fulfill a production quota,
handing over a certain part of their wheat crop to the
state. But any surplus they could eat or sell as they
"We had more motivation," Wang said. "We
were enthusiastic about planting and producing."
So it went for two decades, until the day in the early
spring of 2002, when the public address system crackled
to life with the unthinkable news.
"At that time, they didn't say anything about
money, about compensation," Wang recalled, absent-mindedly
drawing the Chinese characters for "Middle Kingdom"
in the dirt with a piece of straw as he spoke. "We're
ordinary people. We don't know laws. We don't know whether
this was proper or not."
It was nearly time to harvest the wheat. Some villagers
appealed to the Yancheng township government to put
a halt to the plans. But they were told that the land
would soon be cleared and the crop destroyed, according
to interviews with local residents, most of whom requested
anonymity for fear of retribution.
The residents, like other farmers in China, don't actually
own the land, but possess long-term rights to use it.
Some villagers traveled to Jinan to complain to the
provincial government. They gained a few weeks' delay
in the clearing work, long enough for a final harvest.
They also got a promise of compensation -- about $350
per year, per family, for the next five years, Wang
said. But the project would go on.
One morning in June, tractors and bulldozers arrived
to clear the land. Some villagers stood in front of
the vehicles, but police quickly dragged them away.
Workmen put up the wall.
Later that year and into 2003, a group of villagers
traveled three times to Beijing to urge the land bureau
to halt the project. Each time, they were sent back
to Shandong to take up the issue with provincial authorities.
Their complaints succeeded in halting work last fall
for several weeks. They also sparked the investigation
that brought internal party disciplining of some officials.
But the work continued.
All the while, the villagers were unaware that the
project had the blessing of the highest offices of the
provincial government. According to an official at the
Bureau of Land Resources in Qihe county, the Beijing-based
developer, Guoke Group, had been brought in by provincial
officials as part of a campaign to attract investment
to the Jinan area.
The party secretary of Qihe county, Li Fengchen, had
been among the most aggressive proponents of the campaign,
handing out 2.5 acres of free land to any developer
willing to invest $375,000 or more, with additional
grants for larger sums. By 2002, Qihe alone had brought
in some $12 million in investment in this fashion, attracting
some 14 projects, according to an account in the newspaper
Guoke is headed by a Beijing entrepreneur named Cai
Hongjun. In November 2001, another company he leads,
Beijing Guolingke Agriculture Co. Ltd., was ordered
by Changping District authorities in Beijing to tear
down 174 villas that had been built on farmland without
central government approval, according to the Southern
Weekend newspaper. Cai did not return numerous messages.
The project Guoke sketched out for this area would
require more than 450 acres of land -- far in excess
of the roughly six-acre threshold that brought requirements
for central government approval. But, according to the
Qihe land bureau official, the land transfer was approved
by the provincial government, which specifically directed
the county office sign off without Beijing's assent.
Local officials refused to disclose what Guoke paid
for the land. But the head of sales at the villa compound,
Jin Hao, said: "Of course the price was not very
high. The local government gave us the land as a way
to attract capital."
At a groundbreaking ceremony, local party officials
posed for photos with Cai, who wore a white jogging
suit. Many of the officials took home new color television
sets as gifts, villagers said.
In the first phase of construction, Guoke sunk $225
million into building the golf course, the villas and
the hotel, Jin said. Work continues now on the 300-room
hotel, complete with a spa. By the end of next year,
plans call for a total of 800 villas.
Once the wall went up, Wang's family was left with
less than one-fifth of the land they had farmed originally.
It was not enough to feed everyone. So Wang's son, Wang
Guangwu, sought to supplement the family income by extracting
what benefit he could from the changes unfolding around
him: He and his cousin took construction jobs, helping
erect the villas.
They were supposed to be paid upon completion of each
house. But, according to Wang Guangwu's wife, Guoke
refused to pay for several months. With no farmland,
and now no wages, Wang Guangwu and nine other men went
to the county government to complain, collectively seeking
about $2,500, his wife said. When they arrived, they
were arrested and lodged in jail on charges still unknown
to their relatives.
"They won't say what he did," his wife said,
collapsing into the dirt in tears. "They won't
even let me see him."
Security guards now stand at the entrance of Guoke
International Golf Villas, beneath a statue of a warrior
behind a four-horse chariot. Inside the glass-fronted
sales office, the walls are bedecked with photos of
the relationships behind the project: The former party
secretary of Shandong Province, Zhao Zhihao, tees off
at the launch last October as Cai looks on triumphantly;
the former party secretary of nearby Dezhou City, Huang
Sheng, poses with Cai.
And on the other side of the brick wall, Wang Jijing
and his family wonder about the future, straining to
imagine what they will do when the compensation money
"I look at these villas," he said, "and
I see that in the future we have no guarantees."