In recent months peasants in at least four far-flung locations have posted statements on the internet claiming to have seized a total of more than 110,000 hectares of farmland from the state, privatized it and divided it among themselves.
This kind of action harks back to 1978, when farmers in Xiaogang village, Annhui Province, divided communes amongst themselves, following the Great Leap Forward that resulted in famine and the death of up to 40 million.
The farmers who secretly divided up their communal land in Xiaogang were risking their lives, as such revisionism was seen as a capital crime. Luckily for them the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping championed their cause, creating the “household responsibility” system under which peasant farmers could farm their land individually on the basis of 30-year leases from the government.
The new system triggered an explosion in wealth and eventually led to much wider reforms that have propelled the spectacular economic growth of the last few decades.
Recently, the peasants are demanding more and see their actions as reminiscent of the earlier reforms.
The secretive organizers behind the protests told reporters the similarities between their action and that of the Xiaogang peasants were intentional: They hoped to provoke a similar outcome by winning top-level backing for the privatization of rural land in China. They point out that land in urban areas has effectively been privatized already, and that the current system exacerbates the widening wealth gap between urban and rural citizens by denying peasants the right to use their land for collateral or sell it on the open market.