A Chinese lesson in land rights and democracy

The first anniversary of a historic village protest over land grabs shows how far China , as well as many countries, must still go in securing property rights – and tying them to individual civic rights.

James Pomfret/Reuters
Villagers stand in front of a banner showing farm plots during a Sept. 21 protest in Wukan village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. One of China's most celebrated experiments in grass-roots democracy showed signs of faltering as frustrations over land triggered a small protest.

A year ago this month, the small Chinese village of Wukan erupted in revolt. The protest of some 3,000 people put a global spotlight on a common problem in many countries: land grabs by corrupt local officials.

The people of Wukan were not unique. China experiences more than 100,000 protests a year, with most involving disputes over land taken by local authorities. By one estimate, more than a million acres were taken illegally by various levels of government between 2003 and 2008.

And worldwide, the problem of insecure property rights prompted the United Nations earlier this year to issue guidelines on the “responsible governance” of land tenure. In a speech this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of “outdated land tenure laws” in developing countries that prevent people from investing in their economies.

Wukan’s protests were unique, however, in making a clear link between land rights and individual freedom.

After the protests, villagers were able to hold elections in March with no meddling by China’s ruling Communist Party. And with this new freedom of self-governance, the citizens of Wukan expected to have their rights restored to hundreds of acres taken by local party officials.

But that didn’t happen. And so on the first anniversary of the protests, a hundred villagers marched against the newly elected government. They discovered, however, that it was higher levels of government holding up the legal paperwork.

In China and many countries, land rights are tenuous and ambiguous – as are many individual rights. And land takings are accelerating in China, according to a 2011 survey of 1,700 farmers in 17 provinces by the Seattle-based property-rights group Landesa.

In most societies, property rights often go hand in hand with an acceptance of the idea that individuals are worthy and equal citizens able to govern themselves democratically. Until countries such as China secure land rights, they may not see a parallel growth in freedom.

One activist group, the International Land Coalition, claims global investors seeking large tracts of land for the growing and exporting of food are “targeting countries with weak land tenure security.”

China’s land-rights woes were highlighted earlier this year in a World Bank report on economic reforms for the country. The bank recommended a “thorough” overhaul of policies on the government’s taking of land, such as inclusion of citizens in land-use planning and an increase in citizens’ awareness of existing rights. Local governments also need to rely on taxes for revenue rather than taking land and then selling or renting it.

Such steps, however, are more easily taken in a democracy, a fact the bank was reluctant to state clearly. The boldest request: “In rural areas, the government could begin by legally granting farmers indefinite user rights to land they cultivate.”

And that is just what the people of Wukan are waiting for, a missing piece of the newly democratic village.

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