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A farmer seeks justice as China's parliament opens in Beijing

Alexander F. Yuan / AP

Military delegates arrive for the opening session of the annual National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on Monday.

BEIJING – With massive security in Beijing during the annual National People’s Congress, it would seem like a risky time to protest in China’s capital, but for Guan Youming, it’s the best time.

Nearly 3,000 members of the ruling Communist Party gathered in the Great Hall of the People on Monday for the start of the annual meeting amid tight security throughout the city. Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his equivalent of a state-of-the-union speech to the group, setting out the government’s strategy for the coming year.

In addition to economic and military policy, a prominent goal he mentioned was the need to manage major sources of domestic discontent by protecting farmers’ rights and improving rural governance.

Farmers’ rights to their land “must not be violated,” Wen told the politicians, just a day after unprecedented democratic elections in the southern Chinese village of Wukan, which has become a symbol of successful revolt against land grabs and corruption.

You would think that Wen’s words would be music to the ears of Guan, a farmer from central China who made light of his 500-mile journey to brave tight security in Beijing and expose what he claims is illegal confiscation of his land by village authorities.

But Guan was not impressed. “I don’t necessarily believe in what the leaders says, I want to see results,” he told NBC News as he recounted his years of work to try and seek justice for his claim.

Andy Wong / AP

A Chinese police officer drags away a protesting woman after a flag raising ceremony on Tiananmen Square across from where the National People's Congress is held, in Beijing, China on Monday. The cause of the incident was not known but authorities have tighten security of the area around the Great Hall of the People where the annual legislature meetings are held this week.

Season of discontent
With China’s booming real estate industry, residential and land prices have skyrocketed and land disputes have become a major cause of mass protests. According to a report by Tsinghua University Professor Sun Liping last year, the number of protests, riots and strikes have doubled over the last five years to almost 500 a day.

And land grabs cause more than 65 percent of rural “mass incidents,” or collective protest actions, according to Yu Jianrong, a leading expert on rural conflicts at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Reports have estimated that nearly 50 million Chinese farmers have lost their homes during the past 30 years of industrial and urban growth; and that some 60 million more could be further uprooted with accelerated urbanization in the next few years.

Wen promised a better deal for farmers this year, with measures to improve rural incomes and protect farmers’ rights as a “top priority.”

“Farmers’ rights to the land they contract to work on, to the land on which their houses sit, and to proceeds s from collective undertakings are property rights conferred by law, and these rights must not be violated by anyone,” declared Wen during his two-
hour address.

He vowed “better supervision” and “regulation concerning compensation” for farmers in the course of land transfers and expropriations, in a clear signal of a government drive to address the crux of rising rural discontent.

‘Airing dirty laundry in public’
 “From my experience,” Guan said, “the sweeter the words, the more false they are.”

Guan hails from the farming village of Daqiao in Hubei province, where he said local leaders have “illegally” expropriated farmland to build government offices, commercial apartments and roads. Thousands of villagers have been affected, and many have not been adequately compensated, according to Guan, who also said that five fellow villagers have bravely joined him in Beijing to press for their case.

The last straw for Guan was when his quarter acre of farmland – what he said was his “only source of food” – was taken away.  He said he sought the help of various government departments but hasn’t gotten any response.

Asked why he chose this time of tight security in Beijing during the parliament session to make his case – when protesters and petitioners from rural provinces are routinely rounded up or forcibly returned to their villages. Guan said it was a deliberate decision to “exert pressure on leaders.”

“We are seeking out the Western and Taiwan media to explain our plight,” he said.

“Only by doing so can we expect the leaders concerned to pay attention because they are scared of airing our dirty laundry in public,” he explained.

In order to verify Guan’s claims, NBC News reached out to Wu Mingjing, party leader of Wuxie City which oversees Guan’s village.

“No, it’s impossible to for his land to be confiscated,” said Wu. “We have laws and regulations concerning land expropriation and compensation,” he explained, adding that he was not very clear about the details of Guan’s case.

With Guan listening to the telephone conversation, Wu suggested that the Daqiao villagers bring their case to the attention of a local party secretary, with the assurance that “proper action” will be taken.

Guan was not so sure – perhaps Wen’s promises would trickle down after all.

Researcher Isabella Zhong contributed to this report