Chinese Premier Wen takes aim at land seizures

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called for farmers’ land rights to be protected and criticized a widespread policy of moving villagers into apartment blocks so their land can be merged into larger blocs or developed.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions, in northeastern China's port city of Dalian in this September 14, 2011, file photo. REUTERS/Jason Lee/Files

State-backed land grabs are a cause of deep tension across China. Ten days of protests over confiscated farmland and the death of a protest organizer in Wukan in booming Guangdong province in December drew widespread attention as a rebuff to the stability-obsessed government.

In an essay for influential magazine Qiushi, or Seeking Truth, Wen said “rural residents enjoy the legal rights of land contracts, land use and collective income distribution,” whether they stayed in the countryside or migrated to cities for work, according to a summary published by the Xinhua news agency on Sunday.

“No one is empowered to take away such rights,” he wrote. He added that China must protect farmers’ land property rights in rural land expropriation reforms, Xinhua said.

Wen, who is due to step down late this year, is regarded as having more of a popular touch than many Communist officials, however he lacks a following within the elite that could give his calls greater currency.

Last month he said China should give hundreds of millions of rural residents a much bigger share of profits from farmland seizures.

Variations on the consolidation policy have been enacted with enthusiasm in Chongqing in particular, where local officials flaunt the “Chongqing model” as an answer to China’s pressing need for both agricultural land and bigger cities. In Chongqing, former farmers gain some of the rights of city dwellers in exchange for their land.

Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai is the most visible of the senior Chinese officials contending for a central spot in a leadership transition, in part on the strength of his record in Chongqing.

The policy is based on the idea that arable land lost to urban development can be offset by forcing villagers to move into tower blocks and then turning their small plots and homes into larger, more productive fields.

Local governments rely on land sales to raise funds but farmers enjoy little legal protection over their holdings. Critics say the land can still be easily sold off by corrupt officials. Former farmers also have little to rely on once relocation payments run out, they say.

In many areas, including areas around Beijing, farmers must pay for part of the cost of their new homes, further eroding their compensation.

Wen also wrote that “rural construction should maintain its own features instead of bringing urban designs to the countryside and forcing farmers to live in high-rise buildings.”

Reporting By Lucy Hornby; Editing by Ben Harding