By James Pomfret
SHANGPU, China (Reuters) - Torched vehicles and violent clashes in the Chinese village of Shangpu as farmers protest the loss of land to developers is an uncomfortable reminder to Beijing's incoming leadership that, for many, pledges of reform to prevent land grabs ring hollow.
Seizures of land across China have been fuelled by soaring prices and Beijing's urban expansion drive. But outdated laws mean farmers have little legal recourse to oppose land grabs - commonly where village leaders sell off plots to a developer with little or no consultation - or to demand fairer compensation.
Following a spate of high-profile cases, including that of Wukan -- a southern village that openly revolted over murky land sales in 2011 -- outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao pledged last year to overhaul the regime for land expropriations to give farmers more power. But turning draft policies into law is taking time and in some cases laws are being watered down, leaving land grabs as a leading cause of social unrest.
The case in Shangpu is typical of thousands of others in China each year, according to the accounts of villagers. They say a 33 hectare plot of land now being used to grow rice on the outskirts of the village, also in southern China, was sold off without their consent to make way for the construction of an electric cable factory.
They want the land back and the contract scrapped. Tensions boiled over on February 22 when thousands of residents fought and chased off several hundred men wielding steel pipes and spades who were hired as thugs to try to intimidate the villagers into acquiescing on the deal, they say.
Residents then gutted and overturned more than 20 vehicles driven by the intruders. The smashed jeeps and cars still litter the roads.
"We had every right to fight back and protect ourselves," said a 16-year-old villager who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. "The land is our livelihood. We can't survive without it."
RULE OF LAW
Residents have now barricaded the village. Groups of young men - rocks, sticks and walkie-talkies at the ready - watch and block roads from makeshift guardposts, while others have petitioned authorities and are waiting for them to come to their aid.
"Every day we wait but the officials here are ignoring us. The police sit around and won't help. We haven't heard anything. The pressure is building," said a middle aged village leader, who would only be quoted by his family name of Li.
About 90,000 "mass incidents" - a euphemism for social unrest -- occur each year in China, of which some two-thirds are triggered by land related disputes.
The Landesa Rural Development Institute - a body advocating land rights that made this estimate based on wide-ranging surveys in China - says land reform is crucial to safeguard the rights of the country's 700 million rural people and mitigate a growing source of social upheaval.
Bringing greater security to China's farmers is also seen as crucial to developing a consumer-led economy in China, a pillar of Beijing's vision for the future. Policymakers hope that more assured land rights would encourage farmers to save less and spend more and also feel more secure about seeking urban jobs.
While all farmland is state-owned, Chinese laws allow farmers long-term land lease rights under village collectives charged with oversight. Land certificates are imprecise at best and over half of rural households lack documentation -- leaving possession dependent upon villagers' knowledge and officialdoms' whims.
A revised land management law now being debated by China's parliament, stipulates farmers be paid a "fair" commercial or market value, rather than 30 times the land's annual agricultural output as before -- a small, but significant distinction often exploited by officials who buy cheap and sell the farmland for a massive markup to businesses.
NEW LAWS TAKE TIME
"The rural land system is central to maintaining rural stability and ensuring China's long-term development," Wen said at this week's parliamentary session that will formally confer China's new leader Xi Jinping with full power.
"We intensified protection of farmland and farmers' rights and interests, and made a lot of preparations to improve the system of compensating for expropriation of rural collective land," he said in a report on China's policy blueprint for 2013.
Wu Xiaohui, a Chinese land expert and Beijing-based lawyer with Landesa, said revisions to the land management laws would "introduce procedural safeguards" so the likes of Shangpu's farmers can be heard and local government power restricted during land expropriation.
"The revision will not fix all the problems but it will be a significant improvement over the current laws," said Wu.
But the wheels of Chinese lawmaking turn slowly, involving multiple parties and government agencies. Already the scope of proposed revisions to the laws have been substantially watered down since Wen's push last year.
The Legislative Affairs Office of China's cabinet, the State Council, has backed the push to change laws. But some government entities, including the Agriculture Ministry and State Forestry Administration, "oppose any substantive revision", China's state-run Legal Daily reported recently.
The Forestry Administration was quoted as saying more study and time should be taken on the issue.
The draft laws have already been submitted to the heads of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, but at least two more reviews are needed before they can be passed.
Even when new laws are in place, the challenge of ensuring adequate enforcement is unlikely to be resolved so long as oversight of local officials nationwide is patchy and lax.
For now, only places that go to extremes such as Wukan and Shangpu tend to get noticed.
"This is a movement for justice," said a Shangpu elder dressed in green army fatigues as he drank tea with others.
"Xi Jinping said the whole country must fight corruption. This is good for China and the policy is correct. Our village supports the Party and Xi. We are only asking the Party gives our village justice."
(Additional reporting by Grace Li and Jason Subler; Editing by Neil Fullick)