The vast majority of farmland in China is effectively owned and run by individual households under the contract responsibility system, developed and implemented in the early 1980s. In the northern regions of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang however, much of the land has remained under the control of large-scale state farms, which are managed in a similar way to state-owned enterprises, with farm workers receiving a salary, pensions and other welfare benefits.
The Sha Wozi Ranch in Inner Mongolia was originally a horse-breeding facility set up by the military in the early 1970s, and administered by an army unit in Beijing. It later became a state farm with thousands of employees, each of whom was allocated a smallholding in two arable and three grazing units. However, over the last decade, hundreds of those agricultural workers lost their allocated landholdings as profit-hungry managers sold off pasture to other farmers and investors, leading to serious over-grazing and desertification.
The workers petitioned the government but got nothing and were in turn persecuted and harassed by local officials. One of their representatives was detained for several months and eventually had to flee to a secret location in Beijing to escape further retribution. From there she talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang anonymously about the appropriation of the Sha Wozi workers’ land and their fight for justice.
The farm land was divided among the animal husbandry workers in 1996, she explained. “Everybody had a fairly small number of livestock. People made do with their patch of land.” But just four years later, in 2000, managers started to sell off the pastureland to outsiders. The land was sold off in lots of 480 mu (about sixty football pitches), for 5,000 yuan per plot, on ten year leases; 139 plots were hived off in this way. And as the farm’s grasslands dwindled, the managers began to overgraze what was left. The net result was a halving of the workers’ landholdings. The workers mounted their first protests in 2004, claiming that “officials had occupied our land, without approaching the workers or undertaking any kind of procedure.”
The initial protests were not just about land. “That first round of petitioning, in 2004, was also carried out because workers who retired at 60 years of age were left completely without a pension until the age of 70. Not a cent.” Social security was a core demand throughout the years of campaigning, although it was overshadowed by the land sell-off issue.
Some of the local Party leaders were sympathetic at first:
The League (district) Committee set up a task force comprising a dozen or so units to sort things out for us. As a result, two top farm managers, one secretary and four mid-level bosses were removed from their posts, and the farm management was reshuffled.
It was the biggest taskforce of its kind in the 60-year history of the Autonomous Region. “The Deputy Secretary-General of the League committee led the team, and he stayed at our farm for 40 or 50 days.” In addition, “we got some social security for the old workers, and, although it was inadequate, they could now get by. Those who had not been able to retire were able to do so, and the ordinary people really were grateful.”
In 2005 however, the administration of the farm was transferred from the League to the local city of Xilinhot. Critically, the new farm manager was also vice-chairman of the Xilinhot Municipal Political Consultative Committee, giving him disproportionate power and influence. In 2007, the new farm leadership started selling off land again, while the workers access to medical and social insurance remained inadequate or lacking altogether. The workers protested but the new management did not tolerate dissent and now the farm manager had the power to personally call out the local Public Security Bureau at will.
In the past, whatever you did, people were allowed to voice their opinions, but now, if you said anything, they called the Public Security out to arrest you. The office of our former League Party committee secretary was in a separate building, and we could go and make personal visits. Now, you could not get in.
Over-grazing and desertification
By 2007, the situation was growing critical. With the workers dispossessed and the farm “milling with accountants, secretaries and bureaucrats,” who had no understanding of pasture management, overgrazing become chronic.
Grassland had been blown away by the wind, and was longer workable. The degradation was severe. We had no way of raising livestock there. Do you think you can graze 100 sheep on 100 mu? Our share of the grassland was now very small, and we had no way of getting by. The officials are all madmen. It is as if we had committed some kind of crime by petitioning. We had not broken any law, but they still arrested you.
In 2007, she was accused by the police of “forging signatures for petitioning purposes” (“虚假联名”) and of acting as petitioners’ ringleader.
When we mounted petitions in 2007, I only helped them write up and read through the materials, as most of them were retired soldiers, and illiterate. They had asked me to help them. They found their lawyers themselves. I never broke the law.
Five workers went to the municipal petitions office. They were trying to get 300,000 yuan in compensation for the expropriation of pastureland. There were other issues too. Three of them threatened the municipal authorities that would go to the Party committee for Inner Mongolia if nothing was done. At the railway station, they were detained by our local police chief. Three of them were forced to say that I was the organizer, in return for favourable treatment. One refused, and was held for ten days before being released.
When the workers found out that their co-worker had been accused of forging the petition, “more than 150 stepped forward to state that they really had signed, and that the signatures had not been forged,” she said.
Detained for seven months without trial
It made no difference. In mid-June, she was sentenced to seven months re-education through labour (RTL). However, she was not sent to a regular RTL camp but to a Xilinhot city detention centre, a facility for criminal suspects.
She became seriously ill in detention and was released after three months when the Public Security chief feared she might die. “I would have died if that Public Security chief had not seen me. He really saved me. He arranged care for me and told me to contact him if I needed help.”
But in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the authorities detained her for another four months for fear she might stage a public protest. “Those four months were even worse,” she says. “I was not allowed to see anybody, I just sat there with the guards at the detention centre, and even when I was sick, they would not let anybody come and see me.”
While behind bars, she decided to take legal action, opting for an administrative lawsuit to expose the illegal actions of the security services and to get her RTL sentence declared unlawful. At the same time, she continued her struggle to block the land sell-offs at Sha Wozi and force management to provide workers with social security.
The authorities made her life as difficult as possible:
They made trouble for us everywhere. When we wanted to read the documentation related to the lawsuit, they delayed and delayed so that we did not have time to read through it before the hearing began. In the end, my lawyer was invited to come and pick up the paperwork, only to be told that it had disappeared. There was more delay, then the paperwork was recovered, and then we were told we were not allowed to make photocopies. Eventually the hearing opened, and we had still not fully read through the documents.
Meanwhile, the police were trying to buy her off:
One of them wanted to give me 200,000 yuan. He said they were doing it in the government’s name. I said, I have more than a thousand people behind me, and they have no voice. You want to give me 200,000 yuan? If you gave me two million yuan I would not take it, do you understand?
Disenchanted with the legal process
Her lawsuit was dismissed by the court, as was her subsequent appeal. She approached the procuratorate but again got nowhere. The experience left her cynical about China’s legal system:
Basically, the courts are not in a position to rule in your case. They do not have any authority, and do not function as judicial organizations. They ignore all the evidence, and later, when an investigation by the public prosecutor gets the facts out, they still don’t act.
Ultimately, she said, it was a problem of government, specifically the lack of independent funding for the courts, with the local courts in particular being dependent on the city government:
When I protested to the procuratorate, one of the prosecutors jokingly said to me, ‘We cannot cause trouble for the government. If I make a protest on your behalf today, tomorrow I will find that my budget has vanished.’ In all fairness, our League government leaders really do work for the people. But the city government of Xilinhot is not human.
Refusing to give up, she took her case to the Inner Mongolian high court, and says she has received an offer of mediation:
I am not acting out of a spirit of revenge. I just want recognition that my detention was unlawful, and I want the grassland to be returned. Our 80,000 mu should have been sold for 900,000 yuan. But they hived it off to friends, and how much do you think they charged? 450,000 yuan! Middlemen raked off 100,000 yuan. We all know who did it but nobody is doing anything. They have a lot of power and money. We ordinary people cannot touch him.
I really have only two demands. Give us back the land that should not have been divided and sold off. Give it back to the workers. Secondly, our wages are extremely low, and up to now, we have not received any medical insurance. If these things are resolved, then my detention will not have been in vain, and I will not go after anybody.
Fighting for her co-workers’ lands and labour rights over the last few years however has left her personally and her family in ruins:
I am the breadwinner in our family, my husband runs the household. During my detention, my land was reduced to stones, and now grass cannot grow there. I had to sell off my livestock or they would have starved. We have been pushed out to the margins.
No turning back
Fearing for her personal safety, she went into hiding and continued her campaign online. Although she is subject to harassment and threats from local security officials, she carries on because she still has the support of the workers:
You know, an old boy came to me when I was in that detention centre. He spent nearly one month’s wages, 500 yuan, to bribe a policeman, and at midnight, he came to see me. He said that he and 40 or so other retirees could go to the provincial government and hold a sit-in, so they would let me go. They said they would starve themselves to death. Over 40 of them. They were willing to put their personal safety at risk for me. Can you imagine that?
Han asked her whether she thought the petitioning system, which had been the cause of all her difficulties, was effective:
I use this metaphor: going to the petitioning office is like making an appointment at a hospital. It does not solve your problem; you can only get as far as the registration desk. Petitioning gives people somewhere to go, but it has no authority and cannot do anything. Power flows from the provincial government down to the League level down to the city and farm level. And the low level officials are all rotten.
Han Dongfang’s interview with the Inner Mongolian state farm worker was originally broadcast in seven episodes in June 2010.