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From Riches to Rags: The Story of One Impoverished Village in China's Richest Province

Over the past few years, China has seen increasing unrest, largely concentrated in the wealthier industrialized east, not in the poorer, western regions. Analysts say in the east, China's poor live face-to-face with those who benefit from the country's economic boom. Nowhere is this clearer than in Guangdong, the richest of China's provinces, which has seen some of the more violent clashes over the past year. As part of a series of reports looking at what lies behind the unrest, VOA's Luis Ramirez traveled to one village in Guangdong that was the scene of a confrontation.

A group of angry and desperate villagers in the tiny village of Aoshi near Guangdong province's Yunfu city lead a reporter to fields littered with broken granite and other construction debris. It was dumped deliberately to ruin the land and make it impossible for villagers to farm there again.

The villagers complain the local authorities, in a deal with developers, seized the land, leaving farmers with nowhere to grow crops to sustain their families.

They find themselves impoverished in the country's richest province, even as China's economy booms.

A 51-year-old man says he had to borrow money to live.

"Before the government took our land, our life was very good," he says. "My wife was growing vegetables, raising pigs and growing rice. We did not have to buy anything. Now, we have to buy everything. Now, we have to borrow money to get by. We do some odd jobs, if there are any."

It is a story repeated thousands of times in China since the country began its economic reforms almost 30 years ago. Experts say local officials across the country have forced tens of thousands of farmers off their land to make way for factories, shopping malls and even golf courses. If compensation is paid, it usually is not enough to buy new homes and with no land, peasants sink further into poverty, or migrate to cities in hope of jobs.

Video footage secretly taken the day authorities seized the land shows bulldozers plowing through crops as helpless villagers looked on. Security agents shown in the video were heavily armed. It was clear the police anticipated violence.

This 60-year-old villager says agents far outnumbered villagers. She says no one could stand up to them.

"The police knocked on the doors of all the villagers. They brought handcuffs and guns with them to threaten us," she says. " I was so scared that I did not dare to go outside to use the communal toilet. They said that if we left our houses, they would arrest us."

Many villagers refused the compensation local officials offered, saying their land is not for sale and especially not for the low price of about $3500 that the developer offered for each plot.

The farmers say the former village chief who made the deal with developers for the land has retaliated by sending thugs to threaten - and in some cases - beat those who protested the seizure.

The number of people in the room swells from six to more than 20 in just a few moments, with everyone trying to vent their anger.

With no money for medical care, villagers say the sick are dying. This man lost three relatives last year.

"Two got diabetes and one had breast cancer. My aunt had diabetes and fell down and broke her leg and she had to lie in bed for a year. She did not have any money to see a doctor, and finally died," he says.

Not being able to meet family obligations has caused some to despair. The man speaks of a friend who was driven to suicide.

"He had no income and could not afford to pay the school fees of his two children," he says. " He climbed up to touch some power lines and electrocuted himself."

In the days following the land seizures, the 60-year-old woman petitioned local officials and threatened to take her case to Beijing. The officials threw her in jail for 12 days.

"When I was in jail, the officers asked me: 'now, do you still want to go to Beijing? I said, 'even if I do not go, others will.' We have nothing but anger and hatred toward the local government," she says.

As in other cases of unrest in China, local authorities in Aoshi resorted to two tactics to put down uprisings: overwhelming force and propaganda.

Analysts say the propaganda led many to believe that the central government, which has promised to improve life in the impoverished countryside, has the best interests of peasants in mind. They say faith in this promise has prevented people from speaking out against the central authorities and avoided widespread escalation of violence in the countryside.

This man is one who thinks the government in Beijing is trying to help rural residents, but has doubts about the local authorities.

"I think all the laws and regulations made by the central government are fairly good," he says. " However, as the old Chinese saying goes, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. The local officials only care about filling their own pockets and don't care about our livelihood. In China, what we lack mainly is a monitoring system."

Some foreign observers have said one way to avoid unjust land seizures would be to allow peasants to once again own the land, a practice not seen in China since the Communist Party collectivized farms in the 1950s. Others say it would be better to order authorities to pay a fair market price when they seize land for public projects.

Villagers at Aoshi village complain their land was taken not for the public good, but for the good of a few, well-connected officials and business owners. One man points to a bright new auto dealership sitting on his old field. For him, it is a cruel reminder of the new prosperity of which he has no part.

"Wherever you go, people say life in Guangdong is great. But the fact is our area is a place that has been forgotten by others in Guangdong," he says. "Our life is very hard. If you can't find a job, all you can do is wait for death."

Western analysts have warned that rising income inequality could cause massive social problems in China, especially in places such as Guangdong where the destitute live next to the new ultra-rich.

The province has seen some of the most violent uprisings reported in the country over the past year. In some, government agents opened fire and killed demonstrators. Villagers at Aoshi know this has happened at other places and say they remain committed to finding a peaceful solution. They hope international attention will help.

But their anger is growing. In a burst of rage, a group takes a reporter to see the former village leader's home - a three-story house whose bright red and white tiles contrast sharply with the more modest dwellings next to it. One young man angrily points to the house.

He says there used to be a large pond where people fished. The man says the village chief took the land and built himself a large home on it. "They have cars," he says, while none of the villagers do. He says the village chief is rich, but the man says that wealth is built on - "our blood and sweat."