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China's Former Top Land Official on Trial for Corruption

China's former minister of land and resources is on trial for accepting bribes in one of the highest-level cases in recent years. The trial comes at a time of increasing unrest over land confiscation and government corruption in the Chinese countryside.

Tian Fengshan, a former provincial governor and then later China's top official responsible for land, is accused of accepting bribes of more than half a million dollars. His trial began Tuesday.

China's central government says it is battling widespread corruption that contributes to rural unrest. State media report that nearly 50,000 officials have been prosecuted and punished since 2003.

However, experts say that without effective checks on their power, local authorities can impose illegal fees on farmers and give inadequate compensation for confiscated land.

Joseph Cheng is a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. He describes such high-level prosecutions as Mr. Tian's as "show trials" that are becoming increasingly ineffective as warnings to lower-level officials.

"There is a lot of temptation for these rural cadres not to give proper compensation to the peasants," said Joseph Cheng. "And this of course has become a very, very serious source of conflict and source of grievances on the part of the rural people."

Mr. Tian's trial comes as the southern village of Dongzhou remains cordoned off. Security forces there killed at least three protesters last week. Residents dispute that figure and say up to 20 villagers were killed when hundreds demonstrated over what they say was inadequate compensation for land taken by the local government.

There has been very little Chinese media coverage of the killings and protests in Dongzhou. Chinese media rarely report on politically sensitive subjects such as protests unless approved by the Communist Party.

Mr. Cheng says more media freedom in China would be one of the more effective ways to expose corruption and catch the attention of higher-level authorities. However, he says Beijing is unlikely to ease controls on news reports, because it could lead to challenges on the Communist Party's monopoly on power.