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GUSHI, China (Reuters) - While builders in rapidly growing Gushi township in central China have been feverishly erecting apartments, Meng Xiangmeng has been building barricades to thwart them.
A banner nailed to the front of his home at Liulipeng village on the edge of Gushi, where blocks of new housing eat into fields read: "The Constitution grants citizens an inviolable right to private property."
"That banner is to warn them not to mess with me," he said.
A 2004 amendment to the Constitution declares that "citizens' lawful private property is inviolable."
But China's farmers do not directly own their land. It is collectively owned by villages, which parcel out long-term leases to farmers. In practice, local officials control the villages and thus also the land.
As China's urbanization express builds up steam, the contest for land is setting local governments against villagers demanding more control of their land and the wealth it can untap. The confrontation could ignite broader popular demands that challenge the Communist Party's hold over 750 million rural residents, some analysts warn.
Chen Xiwen, an official who advises China's top leaders on rural policy, has said finding a way to urbanize the countryside while avoiding contention over lost land is a key leadership challenge.
"If we only want to solve the problem of agricultural efficiency, there are many ways and they're simple - tearing down villages and pushing farmers into cities," Chen said in a speech at Beijing's Renmin University in May. "But the social conflicts that this could ignite could far exceed any gains."
For years, Meng and other farmers have been battling officials and developers over land seizures.
"Five years ago, this was all fields. It was good land," Meng said, sitting on a battered wooden bed occupied by his ill wife. "The developers have taken all our land. We used to have our own land, but now we don't have anything."
Guo Yongchang, who ran Gushi as the local Communist Party secretary for four years from 2004, made clear his views about the peasant's role in the new China in an interview with a Chinese magazine in 2005.
"The question is whether it's the farmers or the government that adds value to land. And the answer is certainly the government," Guo said. "Land has been in the farmers' hands for thousands of years without rising in value, and only when the government pushes urbanization does it rise in value."
Each patch of land claimed by the developers means less land for farmers, and across much of China, land disputes have become the key fissure setting farmers against officials.
Land rights and property seizures are a leading cause of discontent in a country seething over a growing rich-poor gap. In 2007, China had some 80,000 "mass incidents" -- riots and protests -- up from 60,000 in 2006, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The government has not given updated figures.
Many involved just a few dozen participants protesting against land grabs, corruption, pollution and poor wages. But some have snowballed into violent confrontations involving thousands of residents.
Mao Zedong brought the Communist Party to power in 1949 in part by vowing to seize land from landlords and share it out among the peasants. Today, the peasants view local officials as the new exploitative elite.
"The situation is that they just ignore the central government," said Wang Jieyun, a farmer from Gushi, speaking of county officials. "They live off selling farmers' land. There are no factories, so they live off our land like old landlords," said Wang, baring what he insisted were scars from a clash with builders trying to take farmland in April.
Farmers in Gushi have been offered compensation when they lose their land and homes, and the amounts appear more generous than in years past. Many displaced farmers said they were offered 12,500-15,000 yuan ($1,777-$2,222) for each mu (675 sq meters) of land lost, although quite a few said they never received the full amount. Most families have several mu of fields.
Many villagers said the levels of compensation failed to reflect the value of the land lost, or the costs of finding new housing, especially in the expanding urban areas.
"We don't have enough money to afford a home. It wouldn't be enough to finish the home," said Yang Jiyun, a 40-year-old farmer who said she helped organize protests against developers late last year.
Unrest among farmers is a big concern for local officials, because their promotion prospects are tied to their ability to maintain political stability, said Duncan Innes-Ker at the economist intelligence unit in Beijing .
"But historically, the government's tactics of buying off the majority of participants in such incidents with extra compensation, while arresting the leaders, have been very successful in heading off any wider threat from this source," he said.
The protesters in Gushi county have built barriers of wood and wire to block roads and confronted advancing builders with sit-ins, petitions and wailing crowds of older villagers and children, according to villagers and reports their supporters have put on the Internet.
"We just want what the government says we should get in the regulations," said Yang. "We don't have our own land, we don't have jobs, we don't have any security."
The idea of the state relinquishing its ownership of the land, with much of the Chinese economy already under private control, might be unthinkable in official circles now, but if rural unrest escalates it could change some mindsets.
Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch and Emma Graham-Harrison; editing by Bill Tarrant