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Rural citizens fighting back

By Joe Havely for CNN

For millions of rural workers who have moved to big cities, the May Day holiday week is a chance to return home.

(CNN) -- Until early April the village of Huankantou in central China's Zhejiang province barely registered on the radar.

Like many such places in rural China, the country's breakneck economic growth and dash for riches had largely passed it by. And like many villagers across the country, the people of Huankantou felt a growing resentment with their lot.

On April 10, those resentments exploded.

According to reports, the riot was triggered by the deaths of two elderly women, killed when police moved in to clear about 200 anti-pollution protesters from the gates of a nearby chemical factory.

The factory, the protesters said, was poisoning their land, their crops and their children.

Whether anyone actually died or not has not been confirmed. But the rumor, at least, was enough to ignite a firestorm.

In the ensuing clashes, reports said more than 1,000 riot police were forced back by angry villagers, leaving a trail of overturned buses, broken glass and burned-out police cars.

Photographs of the apparent aftermath -- showing wrecked vehicles and dented police helmets -- have since appeared on several Weblogs.

Huankantou though, is not unique.

The hardships and resentments felt there -- against corrupt local officials, pollution, land seizures, and the growing wealth gap between the urban rich and rural poor -- are felt by millions of rural Chinese across the country.

A massive chunk of China's population -- between 800 million and 900 million people -- live off the land. The situation is a legacy of what, until recently, was a system that imposed strict regulations on rural migration to the cities.

It has created a fertile base for rural discontent.

According to the Chinese government's own reports, in 2003, the latest date for which figures are available, more than three million people were involved in 58,000 protests across the Chinese countryside -- a jump of 15 percent on the previous year.

Since then there have been several other high profile protests.

One, in the southwestern province of Sichuan in late 2004, reportedly involved tens of thousands of farmers opposed to the construction of a hydroelectric dam and the inadequate compensation they said they were getting from the loss of their land.

Such protests are rarely, if ever, reported in the tightly controlled Chinese media.

One reason they are heard about at all is the growing profusion of other information outlets -- most notably the Internet and the rise of blogging -- that enable these stories to slip through the fingers of the Chinese censors.

Another, more deeply rooted reason, is that there are simply more protests and they are growing in intensity -- and it is this that is especially worrying for China's leaders.

Rising rural discontent is one the biggest challenges facing China's government as it oversees the biggest and fastest socio-economic transformation in human history.

It is not, though, a new phenomenon.

In the early 1990s, with China still reeling from the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, the then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping warned that agriculture was the most likely future source of economic unrest.

"If there is agricultural trouble," he told the weekly Chinese magazine New Century, "the country would not recover for many years, and the development of the overall economic and social situation would be severely affected."

It was Deng, the architect of China's reforms, who famously said "to get rich is glorious" -- but even he was aware that if enough people didn't benefit that glory could easily be tarnished.

China's leaders claim their legitimacy and tight grip on power on the much-trumpeted fact that some 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty.

Certainly China's economic achievements, overall, have been impressive. But for millions among China's rural population those claims are beginning to ring hollow.

In the quarter century of China's economic reforms, the division between the country's rural population and those in its booming coastal cities has grown increasingly stark.

According to official figures the average rural income is now in the region of $315 a year (in many areas it is much lower), compared to a national average of over $1000.

In cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou the average wage is more than $3,300 a year.

One recent Chinese survey found that 39 percent of those in rural areas did not go to the doctor, even when faced with a serious health problem, because they could not afford the medical bills.

The situation is not much better among China's urban population -- largely because of the large numbers of rural migrants who have moved to the cities in search of work.

Nevertheless the figures highlight the stark divisions in Chinese society that have resulted from China's headlong rush into capitalism.

Across rural China, stories abound of farmers who barely scrape together an income of $50 a year -- and still have to hand over more than half of that in fees to local officials and state taxes.

A common focus of complaint is the arbitrary fees levied by some local government officials who use the money to fund their own lavish lifestyles.

Although such levies are outside the law, rural residents often have little recourse to a higher authority willing, or able, to listen to their complaints.

In rural China, the saying goes, "the mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away."

The government has recently said it will abolish the deeply unpopular agriculture tax and crack down on local corruption. But many Chinese farmers say they have heard such promises before -- and so far they have come to nothing.

As far back as 1993, for example, then Deputy Premier Zhu Rongji made clear that corruption by rural officials would not be tolerated.

Speaking to the annual session of the National People's Congress, he threatened to "chop off the head" of any official found to be misusing agricultural funds.

As for the villagers of Huankantou, as word has spread of their fight back against authority they have gained an illicit semi-celebrity status.

Reporters who have visited say the town has drawn hundreds of sightseers from across the country, and the villagers are eager to show off the smashed police cars and battered police helmets as trophies.

They may have won a battle, but whether it will turn into a war remains to be seen.

It was Chairman Mao Zedong, after all, who said that in China it was not workers but oppressed peasants who create revolution.

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