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China’s Land Reform Challenge

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
March 10, 2008

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China’s constitution lays down the principle of collective ownership of land as the basis for its socialist economic system. But thousands of farmers, in direct violation of this principle, are demanding privatization of rural land (CSMonitor) and are unilaterally dividing up collective holdings among themselves.

Pressure for reform surfaced two months ago when thousands of farmers in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang decided to reclaim the land taken from them by local officials for sale to private agricultural companies. The protest that started in Heilongjiang spread to other provinces through declarations on the Internet (China Digital Times) and farmers have moved beyond the issue of land seizures to call for private ownership over land.

Discontent among peasants has become one of the major causes for protests in the country. All land in the rural areas is owned by village collectives; each household is allocated a share, which gives land-use rights under thirty-year contracts. To feed China’s economic boom, local officials—usually at the village level—requisition land for sale to manufacturers or property developers. Farmers allege that the process is rife with corruption, with local officials profiting from these development projects and farmers not given adequate compensation.

An analysis in the Financial Times says the Internet declarations were organized at a national level by dissidents comprising journalists, academics, intellectuals, and political activists. They claim their reform movement is set to spread across the country. Though these actions of privatization don’t change anything legally, the movement is posing an important challenge for the government. The leadership responded by cracking down on the farmers (Reuters) and making arrests under charges of “inciting to subvert state power.” Party officials rushed to justify (Xinhua) the policy of collective ownership, citing China’s long feudal history of abuse by landlords. But activists say nothing has changed. Now local officials have become landlords (WashPost) andabuse farmers in the same way.

The movement for private ownership is not without its critics. Wen Tiejun, dean of the school of agriculture and rural development at People’s University in Beijing, told the Financial Times that it is only due to the current system of state ownership that China has “virtually no rural landless poor, in contrast with most large developing countries.” But in a testimony (PDF) to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2006, China expert Joshua Muldavin puts official estimate of landless peasants in China at 70 million, with the number growing by 3 million each year.

China’s Communist party has refused to privatize rural farmlands. However, it paid heed to reform needs in its most recent National Party Congress, during which leaders discussed the idea of permitting farmers to sell land-use rights to other farmers. The government also passed a new property-rights law in 2007.  If implemented properly, some experts say it could address farmer grievances and ensure adequate compensation for lost land.

CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy says getting rid of farms and forests to make way for industry has also resulted in “diminishing crop yields, a loss in biodiversity, and local climatic change.” In a September 2007 Foreign Affairs article she writes that much of China’s arable soil is contaminated, raising concerns about food safety. Loss of arable land to development, desertification, and contamination at a time of spiking food prices and fears of global food shortages could also have consequences for the country’s agricultural productivity. A 2005 survey conducted by the Rural Development Institute, an international nonprofit organization, concluded that secure property rights (PDF) for Chinese farmers would lead to an increase in agricultural investments and productivity and reduce the urban-rural wealth gap.

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