Chinese farmers pay price in drive to build golf centers

QIHE, China, 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 greens.

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 China Daily.

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 wished.

"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 Southern Weekend.

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 runs out.

"I look at these villas," he said, "and I see that in the future we have no guarantees."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6653-2004Apr12.html