BEIJING (AP) -- China has launched a crackdown on illegal land seizures for development, punishing thousands for land grabs that have caused anger and protests around the country.
The government has disciplined 2,864 people and convicted 535 for seizing land illegally, said Zhang Pu, a deputy director of the Ministry of Land and Resources, according to the ministry's Web site.
The punishments were the result of an inspection campaign focussing on local governments, who often side with developers. The ministry statement, posted Monday night, did not identify the people disciplined or say whether they were developers or local officials.
Land seizures to build factories, shopping malls and other projects have caused discontent across China, especially among farmers. In some cases, land grabs have touched off riots and demonstrations.
Rural land in China is collectively owned by villages, meaning local officials can often remove farmers from the land giving them scant compensation. Farmers only have the right to use the land under 30-year leases.
The land grabs have also caused the disappearance of valuable arable land, particularly sensitive because of China's need to feed its growing population of 1.3 billion.
"In areas where there is bad protection of farming land, serious problems in terms of ruthless exploitation, many serious cases of violations of the law and regulations, we have to punish those areas," the ministry statement said.
The ministry said it uncovered 31,700 cases of illegal land seizures in the four-month campaign that wrapped up Jan. 15, adding up to 554,000 acres.
Nearly 60 percent of that land was developed before obtaining proper government approval, according to the ministry. The rest was illegally rented or misappropriated.
In December, farmers in Heilongjiang, Shaanxi and Jiangsu provinces and Tianjin city reportedly posted notices on the Internet claiming ownership of land in their villages, challenging the fundamental communist principle of collective ownership of rural land. Officials have said the rural land laws will not be changed.