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Fight for Land Fuels Chinese Protests


That new socialist countryside that Anthony Kuhn referred to is a cauldron of change and tension in China. The government's drive to industrialize is colliding with the rural population's wish to hold on to its lands. Professor Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan specializes in China's government and economy. He joins us now.

Welcome back to the program.

Professor KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (University of Michigan): Well, thank you very much.

BLOCK: I want to start by asking you about the shooting last week in Southern China by Chinese police. These were villagers who were protesting that their land was being taken by the government to build a power plant. Does this fit into a pattern of rural unrest?

Prof. LIEBERTHAL: Yes, it very much does. In fact, this is the kind of incident that we see all over China now. Village leaders are able to seize the land of villagers, pay villagers an amount that is keyed to the use of that land for agricultural purposes and then flip that around and sell it to state-owned enterprises or to private developers or others for a much higher price, the price of the land for its intended use, and then make money for the local government and often for themselves in the process.

BLOCK: Was the response by the authorities unusual there in that lethal firepower was used with deadly results?

Prof. LIEBERTHAL: It was unusual in that they seemed to have used guns. There had been a number of village protesters who have been severely injured or killed, but generally that's from clubs or other blunt instruments. I believe that the local commander of the People's Armed Police, the group that carried this out, has now been put under arrest for investigation. So I think the upper-level leaders are really quite concerned with the way this particular incident was handled.

BLOCK: Help us understand a bit more why this situation becomes so volatile in the Chinese countryside, what the forces are that are at play here.

Prof. LIEBERTHAL: Well, we see a fundamental set of developments occurring. First of all, peasants are increasingly aware that they have rights. They're increasingly aware of the law. Almost always the interests of local leaders are tied up with those who want to buy the land, and local leaders have the ability to enforce their will. So the peasants are really in a very difficult situation, where they are increasingly aware of their rights but generally unable to exercise those rights through the systems. And one way to get higher-level attention, if the normal processes of appeal and negotiation fail, is to then block highways, if necessary even resort to violence.

BLOCK: Do you figure that they're becoming more and more aware of the rights they have through technology, through cell phones, the Internet, things like that?

Prof. LIEBERTHAL: Absolutely, the spread of cell phone use, of text messaging, of the Internet. And then, also, we've seen rapid development of a kind of activist community in China. There are lawyers and others who now travel around to different places to explain to peasants what their rights are. So this is a combination of technology and of simply the development of a kind of civil society in China. It's in its early stages, but it is beginning to take root and is having an effect.

BLOCK: What would you expect the Chinese government's response to be to unrest, to increased incidents of unrest like the ones we've seen last week?

Prof. LIEBERTHAL: They've actually become pretty skilled at managing these incidents. Typically they try, on the one hand, to bring substantial force onto the scene to demonstrate that they can resort to force if necessary. But then they also try to engage in a negotiation, not with the leaders of the demonstration--the leaders they often will arrest or somehow or other get off the scene; try to engage in negotiations with others and meet some of their demands. They recognize that if they simply refuse all demands, they're very unlikely to be able to bring that protest to a reasonable conclusion.

BLOCK: Professor Lieberthal, thanks for talking with us.

Prof. LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Kenneth Lieberthal is professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He's author of "Governing China: From Revolution Through Reform." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.