When Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck published the Grapes of Wrath in 1939, he would probably never have considered that the story would still resonate 60 years later in China.
Unlike Oklahoma tenant farmers being driven out of the place they have called home for generations by drought and Depression in the book, Chinese farmers have been cleared from their land to make way for roads, factories and residential areas amid China's sizzling economic development.
Forty million farmers have lost their land over the past decade due to urbanization, with another 15 million to suffer a similar fate over the next five years, according to a report from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security in July.
The area of land seized illegally for development nationwide had jumped 20 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources.
Disputes over land have emerged alongside. In January 2006, the Ministry of Public Security reported 87,000 protests, riots and other "mass incidents" related to land loss last year, up 6.6 percent from 2004 and 50 percent from 2003.
Over the past seven years, China has lost 66,670 square kilometers or about 6.7 million hectares of farmland -- 5 percent of the country's total -- to urban development and factories, revealed the Ministry of Land and Resources.
Once the backbone of the Communist Party of China, which won widespread support in the countryside six decades ago on protecting the rights of farmers who joined its fight to overthrow the landlord class, many Chinese farmers now feel alienated from their own land, formerly the fruits of the revolution.
In the 1950s, land was taken away from farmers and put it into collective ownership. The communes were dismantled in the early 1980s when China adopted the household contract responsibility system. Farmers were allocated plots to farm as they wished, but the ownership remained collective.
Since the 1990s, leases of 30 years have been granted on these plots, but farmers have not been able to use the land as collateral for loans or to sell it.
"In theory, rural land is 'collectively owned', but it is uncertain whether this means by the villagers themselves or whether township governments, which each control several villages, exercise these collective rights on behalf of the peasants," said Han Jun, head of the Agricultural Department of the Development Research Center of the State Council.
Without secure land rights, local officials can unpredictably and arbitrarily reallocate, or even sell to a developer, a farmer's piece of land without his or her consent, Prof. Han said. "More than once, a farmer has arrived at his or her plot of land only to discover heavy equipment tearing into the field and found little recourse to prevent the loss."
Land sales are now the primary source of income for many local governments, he said. "They (local officials) make great profits by taking over the land at little or no cost and selling it at market prices."
The farmland confiscated in Fujian Province is worth only 7,000 yuan (875 U.S. dollars) per mu (0.067 hectares). But if it is reclassified as development land, it can be worth up to 500,000 yuan (62, 500 U.S. dollars) per mu (0.067 hectares), Han said.
Peasants wouldn't be so upset if cash from confiscated fields was used to build a new school or fund a river cleanup. Instead, the money is too often lining the pockets of local officials first.
"When land is seized, rural officials often pocket much of the money paid by developers as compensation for the land-lorn peasants," Prof. Han said.
National Auditor-General Li Jinhua said in June that 21 out of 34 highway projects reviewed in 2005 had violated government regulations by not paying farmers proper compensation.
He said local governments had siphoned off 1.6 billion yuan (200 million U.S. dollars) in land compensation funds and used the money to make up their own budget shortfalls or pay bonuses to staff.
As an example, Li cited a highway around the city of Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, saying that local farmers received land compensation of 4,800 yuan (600 U.S. dollars) per mu (0.067 hectares) when they were entitled to receive 18,900 yuan (2,363 U.S. dollars) per mu (0.067 hectares).
To complicate matters, local officials' promotions are tied to high rates of growth or foreign investment, rather than the provision of adequate social services.
"Without secure, long-term land rights, most farmers have little incentive to make mid- to long-term investments on their land because they have no guarantee that they will be able to recoup the value of their investments and make a profit," said Li Peilin, deputy director of the School of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
As a result, he said, the vast majority of rural people who have been left in poverty have been forced to find work in the cities where they end up as cheap labor in sweatshops, construction sites or even as sex workers.
Premier Wen Jiabao early this year warned that illegal seizures of land without compensation and resettlement are a key source of instability in rural areas.
"It is sparking mass incidents in the countryside," said Wen. "We absolutely cannot commit a historic error over land problems."
The central leadership has taken some positive steps in this regard. When the central leadership introduced China's 11th Five-Year Program (2006-2010), it included general policy statements on strengthening farmers' land rights under the household contract responsibility system.
The draft Property Rights Law, which would give private property the same protection as government assets while affirming the "dominant role" of state industry, submitted to the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee for a fifth review in August, includes a key chapter on rural land rights.
This fifth version of the draft law emphasizes farmers' rights to their contracted land is a "usufruct" right: the right to use and enjoy the profits and advantages of the land for 30 years.
However, this chapter of fifth draft law, just like the first four, does not grant the farmer the right to use the land under his "usufruct" right as collateral for either a loan or for sale. Such an enhancement to the farmer's current existing land rights might increase the marketability and market value of land and was mooted when the law was first issued in July 2005 for public consultation. However, opponents argued the introduction of these kinds of market forces into the rural economy might leave more gullible farmers homeless, jobless and penniless. The new draft will be deliberated at the 5th Session of the 10th NPC next March.
The central government has also tried to help by experimenting with programs that boost land compensation for farmers and channel money more directly to the farmers meant to receive it.
China's southern Guangdong Province has mapped out compensation standards for farmers who lose their land. Implemented from July 25 this year, farmers in Guangdong can receive compensation ranging from 234,000 yuan (29,330 U.S. dollars) to 1.03 million yuan (129,100 U.S. dollars) for one hectare of land, based on different zoning.
Provinces like Jiangsu and Zhejiang in east China have improved the social security system for local farmers, with more than 3 million enrolled.
Any solution to these issues must include, as a central element, greater land tenure security for farmers, observed Dr. Zhou Qiren, a professor from the China Center for Economic Research at Beijing University. "This requires significant legal and policy reforms, and their concrete implementation at the grassroots level," he said.
"Land represents the single asset of greatest significance to the rural population in China," said Dr. Zhou. He believed that if the vast majority of Chinese farmers enjoy secure, long-term and marketable land rights, their investments into the land will increase substantially as well as the volume and value of their agricultural production.
"Their increased wealth and consumption power will narrow China's rural-urban income gap," he said. "If farmers are rich, then the country will be prosperous. If villages are stable, so will be the whole of society."