What could be the most adequate real-life example of the fictional, fantastical Pixar movie “Up?” — China’s land–use rights saga! In “Up,” Mr. Frederickson’s entire life and all his cherished memories are threatened when real estate developers want to usurp his home and his land. Through constant harassment, the developers finally force Mr. Frederickson to give up everything he owns – or so they think. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Frederickson uses thousands of helium balloons to carry his home to the mystical place of his childhood dream: Paradise Falls. In reality, the battle between Mr. Frederickson and the real estate developers reflects the heartaches of many Chinese rural villagers, and unfortunately, the Chinese villagers cannot fly their homes to Paradise Falls.
When I learned about China’s land-use rights system — that all land is owned by the government, and the citizens receive “rights” to use the land — I felt even more fortunate to live in a free country where people are entitled to own private land and personal properties. In recent years, land-use rights in China have been put to the test as corruption among the local government and real estate developers worsens. China’s rapid urbanization and the local governments’ need for additional revenue created a ferocious phenomenon of illegal land seizures. Farmers suffer from losing their land-use rights, and the compensation from the local government often barely makes up the loss.
The lack of solid compensation guidelines and the increase in illegal land seizures has resulted in many court disputes and large protests. In late 2011, we saw what the Wukan villagers accomplished as they successfully elected their own leaders to reacquire their lost land. Despite some criticism of the new leaders’ inability to perform up to the villagers’ expectations, what took place in the Wukan village remains a remarkable achievement: Wukan villagers, as well as other rural residents influenced by the Wukan incident, demonstrated their desire and determination to protect their land-use rights. What is seemingly lacking, though, is the legal knowledge that these villagers need to truly empower themselves in the process of protecting their rights.
In 2012, CIPE launched a project in Guizhou which focused on protecting rural land-use rights by educating villagers on the legal aspects of Chinese land laws. The project included legal training workshops, rights protection workshops, and cross-village exchange programs in Hainan province. The training workshops provided opportunities for the rural villagers to gain legal knowledge and raised awareness of the importance of property rights. Training topics included “Rural Land Contracting Law,” “Land Management Law,” and “Property Law,” which many villagers, especially the ones who spend the majority of their time working away from home, found particularly useful.
During the course of this project, two rights protection workshops were conducted in the city of Zunyi, where illegal land requisition is a common occurrence. Due to the outstanding reputation of the legal training workshop, the rights protection workshop attracted an unexpectedly large number of villagers to the meeting. The focus of the rights protection workshops was property law education and strategies for safeguarding land-use rights. Furthermore, experts leading these workshops introduced examples of rights violations, how farmers should react to these violations, the legal procedures to file cases, and information on legal aid availability.
Legal aid workers and rural rights defenders were invited to speak at the workshops in order to help establish a legal aid network of experts on rights defense and to provide basic legal assistance for rural residents who are in need. To further stimulate a participatory and interactive style of learning, a case study about the Wukan protest incident in Guangdong province was presented to the participants. Through this case study, rural villagers learned that the best way for farmers to protect their rights is to have thorough knowledge of land-use laws and regulations and to mount joint efforts by farmers through collective legal action.
The cross-village exchange program enabled participants to travel to Hainan province to learn from the experiences and to share their gained knowledge with other villages. Hainan has experienced large-scale protests about land takings by local governments for economic development projects; these protests provided unique, on-the-ground case studies for the workshop participants. The exchange programs incorporated more than 120 participants from fifteen different villages, many of whom learned that rural villagers can exert pressure on the local government via spreading the truth of incidents on the Internet and with the media.
A learning center was established to provided space and land-use rights materials for learning purposes. Residents in Wolong village who participated in the legal training workshops utilized the learning center and met for discussions about land-use rights disputes with the government. Learning center legal-aid workers assisted the villagers to present their collective efforts in a request for a higher compensation for giving up their land-use rights. Villagers collectively refused to sign the land-taking agreement unless the government agrees to their request. Consequently, the government consented to such request and the villagers were satisfied with the outcome.
Feedback from the workshop participants was extremely positive. One participant commented that “education on land-use rights is crucial to the life of Chinese citizens; nevertheless, the central government has neglected to provide such a service while local governments continue to perform illegal land-use seizures.” After attending the cross-village exchange program, another participant commented that “only through collaboration can vulnerable farmers like us protect our rights.”
Opportunities to learn about land-use laws and rights have been especially rare for the women and ethnic minority villagers; however, they were able to participate in the workshops, and they showed great interest and enthusiasm during the discussions. A female participant shared that she has learned a great deal about land-use rights protection, and she felt more empowered to cope with these challenges.
The positive impact derived from the rights protection cases, in which villagers utilized the learning center and applied knowledge learned from the workshops to protect their land-use rights collectively, indicates the importance of this project. To date, more than 400 rural villagers have directly gained knowledge of land laws and strategies to protect their land-use rights, and more than 30,000 rural villagers indirectly learned about these laws and strategies through word-of-mouth information sharing. This estimation is based on 10 villages with an average of 3,000 residents.
In light of this overwhelming, positive response from the rural villagers who attended the rights workshops and demonstrated their eagerness to protect their land-use rights, CIPE will launch a second phase of the project in 2013 to continue all training workshops and the cross-village exchange program. A central focus of this phase will be to strengthen the in-village education work. As such, the number of participating villages will double and more female and ethnic minority residents will be invited to the workshops.
In Pixar’s “Up,” Mr. Frederickson was able to escape the clutches of the real estate developers. Our hope is that the Chinese rural villagers will not have to escape hardships of illegal land-takings; rather, our hope is that the villagers will stand their ground and win with the legal knowledge learned from these training workshops and the help from legal aid networks established.
Michelle Chen is Program Assistant for Asia at CIPE.