One man's struggle for the return of village land taken by corrupt Chinese officials has sparked worldwide interest. John Garnaut and Sanghee Liu report from Fujin.

In the dying days of the Cultural Revolution Yu Changwu was chosen to serve his county. His status as a soldier brought great honour to his mother and family back in what was then an impoverished village near Yantai on the Shandong coast.

And after four years the People's Liberation Army gave him two life-defining assets. One was a soldier-settler plot of land at Nangang village, on China's frozen northern frontier. The other was a little red book with ''retired soldier'' on the front, which confirmed his enduring entitlement to small privileges and respect.

Inside the worn plastic cover is a picture of Mao Zedong and two lines of calligraphy written in the chairman's hand: ''Let the revolutionary tradition shine; strive for greater honour.''

Yu married a girl from his new village and they grew wheat, corn and soybeans on their 16mu (one hectare) of black, flood-plain dirt, near the Russian border. Then, in 1994, officials from the local Fujin municipal government turned up with a new map that showed the village land neatly sliced in half.

The east side of the map, now yellowed and tattered, displays the village household plots of land squashed to half their former size. The Yu family's land, for example, is cut from 16 mu to eight. And the west side of the map is blank except for two characters saying ''South Korea''.

Those characters signify a South Korean company, named on documents from the time as Guangxu Chemical Company, which was supposed to have signed an agricultural joint venture with the Fujin government. But the South Korean investment company never came.

Instead, in a blur of government committee meetings and opaque private dealings, at least 570,000mu belonging to Yu and 40,000 other farmers was transferred to the ''joint venture'' company, then the Fujin municipal government and finally into the names of friends and relatives of the officials who ran the government. Most of that stolen land was rented straight back to the farmers who had just been dispossessed.

''Step by step the government took over nearly 1 millionmu of land and charged farmers for the right to use it,'' says Li Zhiying, a Beijing land activist who liaised closely with village leaders in the area. ''Farmers showed me the names of lots of officials who had land in the names of relatives, sometimes thousands of mu each.''

At times Fujin officials have resorted to violence to ensure no embarrassing reports make it to higher tiers of government.

The new feudal system sits awkwardly alongside the Communist Party's revolutionary rationale, but it's making many of them rich. Over the years officials subcontracted some of the heavy lifting - and a large slice of the local services sector - to ''black society'' gangs.

''Fujin has become a mess because of them,'' says the head of one village, in another corner of Fujin municipality. ''There are an awful lot of people who have been hurt by them, almost a hundred.''

Much of the discontent is focused on a man who used to head the Fujin ''politics and law'' committee, a pivotal and often lucrative security job at the heart of every tier of the Chinese Communist Party system, and who now chairs the Fujin People's Political Consultative Conference.

''His son has manufactured six handguns and killed three people,'' says the village head. ''If this was an ordinary person he would have been executed six times. But now he is general manager of the Fujin collective pig farm.''

The former security chief has taken 42,000 mu of farm land, says the village head, in a country where the average arable land holding is less than four mu. He says another official, who is a Fujin deputy Communist Party secretary, has taken 37,500 mu.

''They are the two biggest landlords here, they are the present day Liu Wencai,'' says the village head, referring to a notorious Sichuan landlord and his warlord-brother who were brought undone by the communist revolution.

The village head details how the former security chief and his gangs have intercepted tens of millions of yuan in government development grants, agricultural subsidies and health insurance that the central government provided for local farmers. He also notes that Fujin's top official, the party chief, has just returned from a ''gift giving'' visit to Beijing. Farmers with grievances in China are supposed to apply to the local Letters and Visits office for redress. But these ''petitions'' offices are manned by the same government networks that are already the subject of complaints.

The long-serving head of the Fujin Letters and Visits office is a man called Lian Feng, whose round ruddy face and bloodshot eyes bear testimony to countless banquets and rounds of ''baijiu'' liquor. Lian gets rewarded for doing the opposite of what the law says he is there for. So Lian and colleagues in the city Public Security Bureau play a never-ending game of intercepting ''petitioners'' such as Yu Changwu to prevent them from reaching his office and lodging a valid complaint.

''There is no dispute in Nangang village of Fujin city, at all,'' Lian told the Herald two years ago, explaining that there could not be a dispute unless and until his office said there was one. When it was pointed out that Yu had once made it to the office, Lian explained: ''Individual villagers do not represent themselves. 'Yu's request was not co-signed by more than two-thirds of the villagers. His petition is not legal according to the regulations.''

For 13 years officials like Lian didn't give an inch to Yu's demands to return the land or provide proper compensation. So Yu resorted to more desperate measures. In June 2007 Yu accepted a call from the Epoch Times, a newspaper run in the US by Falun Gong, the meditation group that is banned in China and branded an ''evil cult''.

International newspapers were soon reporting Yu Changwu's apparent declaration that ''we want human rights, not the Olympics''. Yu was promptly arrested on suspicion of subversion, but released after 27 days.

Yu does not begrudge the publicity. He knows his message would never have made it to Beijing if it hadn't been given an extra push. But he remembers the Epoch Times interview differently from how it was reported. ''I didn't say I don't want the Olympics. I said how can a farmer lay down on a bed and watch the Olympics on TV if he has no land to farm.''

By the end of the northern autumn Yu was dreaming up more radical plans. He rallied the village and proposed to rewrite the map by re-allocating the land held by Fujin officials back to its rightful owners. By then Yu was receiving phone calls from a Beijing activist, Hu Jia.

Under house arrest at the time, Hu Jia was prominent in representing so many farmers, workers and intellectuals in their myriad disputes that Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2006.

''It was my idea to divide the land,'' Yu says. ''It was Hu Jia's idea to elect representatives first. So we elected representatives and then divided the land.'' Four hundred and ninety people, most of the village's adult population, elected Yu and six others as their new representatives. Their signatures and red fingerprints are recorded on seven loose pieces of paper, carefully wrapped in layers of plastic and hidden in a secret place.

Papers in that package also record the events of December 12, 2007, when Yu led 22 men on to the contested land to measure and ceremoniously reclaim it.

Hu Jia asked if the land redistribution could be publicised nationwide, and Yu agreed. Soon scholars, teachers, farmers and workers were phoning from all over China with messages of support.

Yu drove back from the village but he never made it back to his one-room home in Fujin city, which he shares with his wife. An official phoned and invited him to a hotel, where four policemen knocked him to the ground and each grabbed an arm or leg. They emptied his pockets and found the little red retired soldier's book. They desecrated it by ripping out his photo.

Hu Jia, in Beijing, was taken by police on December 27 and subsequently sentenced to 3 years' jail for subversion. ''I believe Hu Jia was arrested because of this case,'' Yu says.

The Herald first travelled to Nangang village on December 28, 2007, but we were too late. Yu had already been arrested. After half an hour six police cars arrived and briefly detained us too.

Days before Yu's arrest a bold manifesto began circulating on the internet in his name. Similar manifestos were soon issued in the names of farmers involved in other epic land disputes in Shaanxi, Tianjin and Jiangsu provinces. They caught the attention of China journalists, scholars and analysts because they called for individual rural land ownership, in breach of the Chinese Constitution's requirement of collective ownership.

''If the movement indeed takes off, it will be a true, true, bottom-up land revolution,'' wrote Professor Fei-Ling Wang, of Georgia Institute of Technology, at the time.

Yu Changwu says he has no idea who wrote the revolutionary manifesto issued in his name together with a leader from another village, Wang Guilin. Yu is yet to learn how to use a computer and can barely read. ''We definitely don't want privatisation; we want collective land ownership and household distribution,'' says Yu, echoing official government policy.

Indeed, the undated handwritten land declaration signed by Yu and six other elected village leaders reads: ''We urgently demand turning back 966 hectares of collective land in Nangang village and safeguard the collective land ownership.'' Nevertheless, Yu was sentenced without court proceedings for ''disturbing socialist order'', involving 18 months of ''re-education'' making chemical fertiliser and packaging chopsticks.

Occasionally he would overhear chatter from his captors: ''What are you doing this afternoon? I'm going to see my land. How much rent are you getting ? ''

His comrade-in-arms, Wang Guilin, served an 18-month sentence for subversion. Li Zhiying, the Beijing land activist, hints at why Yu's records differ so greatly from the internet declaration and international media reports.

''I planned it all,'' Li says. ''Of course I'm sorry about their imprisonment, but I do not feel guilty. This is China, there is nothing one can do. Personal sacrifice is necessary for the state to progress. Yu Changwu and Wang Guilin may not be aware of how significant this was in Chinese history.''

The Fujin government did not reply to questions. But the Herald has obtained the Fujin Propaganda Bureau's 2008 response to questions from the central government.

''The land conflict became worse since 2007 because of the cheating and lies of overseas anti-Chinese forces and media together with illegal practitioners,'' it said. ''But we have solved most problems based on their requests and farmers were basically satisfied and social stability has been maintained.''

Activist Li Zhiying says the Fujin land saga was even used as a negative case study at the third plenum of the 17th Communist Party Congress in October 2008. President Hu Jintao had prepared the plenum to implement sweeping reforms to protect farmer's land rights, but he made little progress.

No officials involved in the Fujin dispute have been publicly disciplined. Many have been promoted.

In March last year 400 farmers at Changchunlin, Wang Guilin's village, attempted to replicate the earlier land redistribution, but they were attacked by 100 police and ''black society'' gangs, according to witnesses.

Yu and Wang Guiln were both released in June last year. Fifteen years of fighting for their land and dignity has taken a toll. ''Wang Guilin was bought off by the government,'' Yu says. ''They gave him 20 hectares. They offered me 50.''

Yu refused. He won't accept anything other than the return of all the village land. The farmers who once rallied to Yu's support still have only half their land, but they are wearying. ''I no longer have the influence in my village to organise anything like dividing land again,'' Yu says.

Hi mother, in the now-booming city of Yantai, is 84. Yu hasn't seen her since he left the army 30 years ago. At first Yu couldn't afford the train fare home. But since starting his epic struggle he can't bear to go home with nothing but 700,000 yuan in debts to show for it. He's counting on this story being brought to the attention of Premier Wen Jiabao.

''I'll go back when I succeed,'' Yu says.