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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.