Mao’s Last Farmer

The Sydney Morning Herald tells the complicated story of peasant activist Yu Changwu, who became well-known to the international media after a manifesto demanding land rights signed in his name circulated online:

Yu married a girl from his new village and they grew wheat, corn and soybeans on their 16mu (one hectare) of black, flood-plain dirt, near the Russian border. Then, in 1994, officials from the local Fujin municipal government turned up with a new map that showed the village land neatly sliced in half.

The east side of the map, now yellowed and tattered, displays the village household plots of land squashed to half their former size. The Yu family’s land, for example, is cut from 16 mu to eight. And the west side of the map is blank except for two characters saying ”South Korea”.

Those characters signify a South Korean company, named on documents from the time as Guangxu Chemical Company, which was supposed to have signed an agricultural joint venture with the Fujin government. But the South Korean investment company never came.

Instead, in a blur of government committee meetings and opaque private dealings, at least 570,000mu belonging to Yu and 40,000 other farmers was transferred to the ”joint venture” company, then the Fujin municipal government and finally into the names of friends and relatives of the officials who ran the government. Most of that stolen land was rented straight back to the farmers who had just been dispossessed.

”Step by step the government took over nearly 1 millionmu of land and charged farmers for the right to use it,” says Li Zhiying, a Beijing land activist who liaised closely with village leaders in the area. ”Farmers showed me the names of lots of officials who had land in the names of relatives, sometimes thousands of mu each.”

At times Fujin officials have resorted to violence to ensure no embarrassing reports make it to higher tiers of government.

Yet Yu claims that he did not write the manifestos that brought the issue of land rights to international attention:

Yu Changwu says he has no idea who wrote the revolutionary manifesto issued in his name together with a leader from another village, Wang Guilin. Yu is yet to learn how to use a computer and can barely read. ”We definitely don’t want privatisation; we want collective land ownership and household distribution,” says Yu, echoing official government policy.

Indeed, the undated handwritten land declaration signed by Yu and six other elected village leaders reads: ”We urgently demand turning back 966 hectares of collective land in Nangang village and safeguard the collective land ownership.” Nevertheless, Yu was sentenced without court proceedings for ”disturbing socialist order”, involving 18 months of ”re-education” making chemical fertiliser and packaging chopsticks.

Occasionally he would overhear chatter from his captors: ”What are you doing this afternoon? I’m going to see my land. How much rent are you getting …? ”

His comrade-in-arms, Wang Guilin, served an 18-month sentence for subversion. Li Zhiying, the Beijing land activist, hints at why Yu’s records differ so greatly from the internet declaration and international media reports.

”I planned it all,” Li says. ”Of course I’m sorry about their imprisonment, but I do not feel guilty. This is China, there is nothing one can do. Personal sacrifice is necessary for the state to progress. Yu Changwu and Wang Guilin may not be aware of how significant this was in Chinese history.”

See also a previous story from the Sydney Morning Herald about Yu Changwu and other rural activists. Read more about the land rights movement via CDT.


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