Opinion

China: One fire may be out, but tensions over rural land rights are still smoldering

The same tinderbox that allowed the Chinese village of Wukan to erupt (the confiscation of farmer’s land without fair compensation) is present in thousands of villages across China. The scale of the problem is a matter of both domestic and global concern.

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    Election workers burn remaining unused ballots before vote counting at a school, turned into a polling station, in Wukan village in Lufeng, Guangdong province in China Feb 1. Thousands of residents of the restive village in southern China cast their ballots Wednesday, marking the start of a gradual restoration of grassroots rights following violent confrontations with authorities over land grabs.
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After months of protests and rioting in the small Chinese village of Wukan, life is returning to normal. As roadblocks are removed and daily life returns to its pre-riot rhythms, it is tempting to think that a crisis has been averted.

But the restoration of calm in China’s southeast should not obscure the fact that the same tinderbox that allowed Wukan to erupt (the confiscation of farmer’s land without fair compensation) is present in thousands of villages across China. The scale of this problem makes China’s rural land tenure issues and their impact on food security and stability a matter of both domestic and global concern.

While the arc of Wukan’s story is unusual, the underlying issues are not: Late last year, villagers began a standoff with local authorities. Villagers  protested local officials confiscating farmers’ land and selling it to developers without giving the farmers proper compensation. As a result of the protests and mass civic engagement, higher authorities stepped in and promised an investigation, and free and fair local elections.

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Consider the fact that across China each year, approximately 4 million rural families lose their land to local governments and well-connected developers – often without compensation or consultation, as was the case in Wukan.

This further exacerbates the rural-urban divide in China that has left the majority of China’s 700 million farmers embittered and living on less than $2 a day and lagging far behind their urban counterparts in schooling, health care, and other socioeconomic indicators.

These disenchanted and dispossessed farmers are an extremely destabilizing force across China. Indeed, in 2010 alone, according to Chinese researchers, 187,000 “mass incidents” (demonstrations or riots) erupted across the country – 65 percent of them related to land disputes.

And the problem is only growing worse as a new survey of 1,791 farmers across 17-provinces indicates.

The pace of rural land grabs in China is increasing steadily, our survey shows. Almost half of all villages surveyed reporting that they have experienced land takings. In more than one-fifth of these takings, farmers have yet to receive any compensation whatsoever. When farmers did receive compensation for the loss of their land, it usually amounted to only a small fraction of the land’s true value.

Even China’s many new “urbanization programs,” created to increase agricultural acreage by moving farmers to the city, razing their rural homes, and returning these housing plots to agricultural production, have not helped. In China’s overheated land market, these programs have become a tool and opportunity for developers. In fact, in more than half of these cases farmers report that they actually lost both their farmland and home in the process.

Moreover, the vast majority of these “urbanized” farmers have not become full-fledged urban citizens, receiving neither urban status nor the highly sought-after urban benefits they hoped to gain through the deal with local authorities.

This land tenure insecurity has left China’s farmers poorer and reluctant to invest in their land and maximize their harvest. The end result: slower rural development, exacerbating China’s already gaping and destabilizing urban-rural income gap, and ensuring harvests that fall far short of their potential.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has recognized the importance of protecting farmers’ land rights – as they impact continued stability, rural development, and food security. In a December address, Mr. Wen delivered one of the strongest statements in memory by a top Chinese government official on the protection of farmers’ land rights.

Farmers, Wen said, had undeniable legal rights to the land they till, although across China the land is technically owned by village collectives. He went further to say China’s tremendous economic development over the last couple of decades has too often come at farmers’ expense.

Protecting farmers’ land rights in the midst of the largest urbanization process ever seen in history obviously will require a fundamental shift in national development strategy, in thinking about rural-urban development, in local government financing issues, and in land legislation and policies. This is particularly tricky in the coming year as China navigates a transition to a new leadership.

But it is critical.

As always, land is the fulcrum upon which Chinese history pivots. And because China is the world’s factory floor, its internal stability matters greatly to the global economy as well.

China’s central government has, as Wen’s recent remarks indicate, started to address the problem. One of the programs it has launched is a land registration pilot program to ensure that every farmer’s land tenure claims are registered. These pilot programs must be closely monitored and accelerated. This program could help further rural development and stability if it is implemented in an equitable and participatory manner.

More can be done, including: reforming the law on land takings to improve compensation and due process by requiring local officials to provide farmers with at least the required level of compensation and a court order before evicting farmers. Reforms must be implemented rigorously and effectively and any new programs should be aimed at increasing farmers’ awareness of their rights and their ability to exercise those rights. And all of these programs and institutions have to be designed in a way that works at the local level.

Amidst all of the uncertainty, one thing remains clear: China has better prospects of restoring harmony and creating broad-based and sustainable prosperity when farmers’ land rights are better secured – a recipe for the a true great leap forward.  And what’s good for China is good for the world. 

Yu Gao is China Program Director for Landesa, a global organization that partners with governments to help secure land rights for the poor. Follow us @Landesa_Global.

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