BEIJING (Reuters) - China has failed to give farmers adequate protection from arbitrary seizures of land, Premier Wen Jiabao said in comments published on Sunday in which he acknowledged that the resulting discontent is fanning protests.
Wen made the comments while visiting Guangdong province in southern China, where an audacious protest by residents of Wukan village in late 2011 galvanised official attention on widespread anger over farmland confiscations.
The Chinese premier, who retires later this year, said he understood why villagers were often angry about land losses, and vowed to give real bite to protections that in theory give farmers a collective say in land development.
"What is the widespread problem now? It's the arbitrary seizure of farmers' fields, and the farmers have complaints about this, and it's even sparking mass incidents," Wen said in Guangdong on Saturday, according to the Xinhua report.
"Mass incidents" is the official euphemism for protests, riots and mass petitions.
"The root of the problem is that the land is the property of the farmers, but this right has not been protected in the way it should be," said Wen.
Wen, who has cast himself as a defender of the struggling farmer, also vowed to make village committee elections -- seen by many residents as an empty formality under the thumb of officials -- into an authentic channel for public opinion.
Neither Wen's comments on land nor on village elections broke new policy ground, but they underscored government jitters about rural discontent as China's ruling Communist Party heads towards a leadership handover in late 2012. He did not mention the Wukan protests.
Farmers in China do not directly own their fields. Instead, most rural land is owned collectively by a village, with farmers allocated leases for usage rights that last for decades.
In theory, villagers can collectively decide whether to apply to sell off or develop land. In practice, however, state officials can decide -- and they often override the wishes of farmers, hoping to generate investment, revenues and pay-offs.
Residents of Wukan village in Guangdong threw such problems into glaring focus in late 2011, when they held a 10-day protest over confiscated land and the death of a protest organiser.
They won concessions from the province government, which promised to correct land abuses and establish a popularly elected village committee. These committees have little power and must answer to the party, but they can act as a break on land abuses by officials and oversee where village revenues go.
Wen signalled that he was sympathetic to giving villagers more say over their own affairs.
"We must certainly protect the voting rights of farmers, and be unwavering in properly carrying out village self-governance and direct election of village committees," he told villagers outside of Guangzhou, the province capital of Guangdong.
On Wednesday, residents of Wukan held a symbolic election on the way towards voting for a new village committee.
The number of "mass incidents" of unrest recorded by the Chinese government grew from 8,700 in 1993 to about 90,000 in 2010, according to several government-backed studies. Some estimates are higher, and the government has not released official data for recent years.
Conflict over land requisitions accounted for more than 65 percent of rural "mass incidents", the China Economic Times reported this year, citing survey data.
While in Guangdong, Wen also discussed the impact of the euro zone crisis.
Reporting by Chris Buckley