When developers swooped in to seize Tao Qing Yuan's farmland, he was left with no compensation, but only a stern warning: protesting would land him in serious trouble.
The 40-year-old corn farmer was left outraged, but remained quietly confident. Surely in his hometown, he thought, such wrongs could not go unpunished.
His faith, however, began to waver when he made his first visit to the local village committee. We will look into your case, they told him.
Three months on, he never heard back.
What followed was a five-year-long search for answers, one that took him across every level of local government. He filed petitions, hired lawyers and took to the courts. Today, he is right back where his journey started — armed with grievances, but no answers.
Mr. Tao's story is being played out across China's provinces in recent months, where a spike in land conflicts is leading to calls for reforming a legal system that provides little recourse to those displaced.
Illegal seizures of farmland by local governments, who are pushing forward development projects, is also raising food security concerns in Beijing, with the central government appearing unable to stem rising encroachments on arable land.
In the first three months of this year, the Ministry of Land Resources recorded 9,830 cases of illegal land use affecting 4,891 hectares, a 3.7 per cent increase from the previous year.
The Ministry warned that the central government would face increasing pressure to protect land with cash-strapped local governments increasingly relying on the sale of land for development projects as a source of income.
In Beixinxiao, a small village in China's central Hebei province, the development push has already begun. Some farmers, like Mr. Tao, have lost their land to commercial projects.
In other villages, projects are also being pushed through under new guidelines to redevelop the countryside, which envisages reorganising farmland by demolishing homes and moving every household into apartment blocks.
In Dongxueshang, another Hebei village, the redevelopment plan has not yet been enforced, but is already dividing opinion.
Older farmers like Wang Hui Zhen say they will be left without a livelihood. “How can I grow vegetables in my apartment?” she asks.
Younger residents, most of whom are employed in nearby towns, appear more upbeat.
Ms. Wang's two daughters, aged 18 and 19, welcome the move, as long as they are compensated. “We don't want a life in farming,” says one.
The idea behind the plan is to free up farmland for development use by consolidating smaller holdings, and ensuring that the “red line” of minimum arable land is not crossed in every county.
In the villages of Hebei and Shandong, however, numerous cases of improper seizures and diverting agricultural land to commercial purposes have been reported.
One survey conducted by the Ministry of Land Resources estimated that local governments plan to allocate 1.08 million hectares for projects this year, far exceeding the 448,900 hectare cap imposed by the central government.
Despite the concerns, the plans will be pushed through this year in every Chinese county, with many scholars warning of social instability, with rising conflicts over land to come and uncertainty about how local governments plan to address them.
Underscoring these concerns, one farmer in Jiangxi province set off three bombs outside government offices this week, after failing to receive compensation following a 10-year-long petition battle.
In Mr. Tao's case, the local government's response was to simply ignore his petitions. He accuses local officials of colluding with developers to acquire land at below-market rate prices, and turning a deaf ear to cases like his.
“I tried to petition the village committee, and then the local district office,” he said. “I went there three times.”
The last time, he said, the village committee sent a car full of thugs to prevent him from filing a petition. They beat him up and told him to stop petitioning.