China land reform: great leap backward?

A week after the close of the Third Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, officials announced Oct. 19 that new rules have been issued allowing China’s 800 million farmers to “lease their contracted farmland or transfer their land use right.” The long-anticipated reform is officially intended to double rural incomes by 2020, the official news agency Xinhua reports. The reform is portrayed in the Western media as a response to the growing tide of peasant unrest in China. But Xinhua also made clear the ultimate aim is actually a de-emphasis of agriculture. “This breakthrough is necessary,” said Xu Xianglin, an economics professor at the Party School of the Central Committee. “It meets the need of industrialization and urbanization in the current stage.”

The delay of the announcement fueled disbelief in the West that the reform was really in the works, despite the hype that preceded the Third Plenary Session. Official declarations as the meeting opened announced an imminent decision to enact a “new upsurge” of land reform, The Economist skeptically noted Oct. 16. But the Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 15 that when the closed-door meeting wrapped up, “the issue had all but disappeared from public view. It wasn’t even mentioned in the final communique from the 368-member decision-making body.” The supposed retreat from the reform was portrayed as a victory for Communist hardliners. “Deng Xiaoping dared to enact reforms,” LAT quoted an unnamed official, “but Hu Jintao can’t do it at this stage.”

Bizarrely, the consensus media view seems to be that capitalist reform is the key to land security. Writes The Economist: “Some believe that, at long last, the party has recognised that the key to agricultural improvement is land ownership.” It cites the case of Shangmatai township, near the port city of Tianjin southeast of Beijing, where the local government has seized peasant lands for tourism development—with no compensation. “Peasants want to recover the land ownership rights that belong to us,” read a statement signed by 17 farmers of Shangmatai in March. For their efforts, The Economist reports, they have received only harassment and intimidation:

So far, they have had no luck. Activists say they are kept under surveillance. Several claim to have been beaten by goons hired by local officials. One was detained for 18 days in April. Courts have refused to hear their case and officials have tried to intimidate a lawyer representing them, the activists say.

Socialism is of course the culprit in The Economist’s veiw:

At the moment, rural land is “collectively” owned but may be leased to peasants on 30-year contracts. It cannot be mortgaged and selling usage rights or buildings can be legally problematic. Urban land, in contrast, though state-owned, is readily traded, with far longer leases.

And, it goes without saying, the free market is the solution:

Chinese academics have long argued that a freer and better-regulated rural property market is essential if peasants are to enjoy more of the fruits of growth. They say it would encourage the consolidation of tiny, inefficient plots of land leased to farmers by collectives and allow peasants to cash in on their land’s market value, enabling them to use the capital to go into business in the cities. Academics also think that a proper land market would protect farmers from indiscriminate land grabs by local officials who often take collective ownership to mean control by themselves.

Of the tens of thousands of peasant protests that occur every year in China, nearly half relate to land grabs, The Economist says, citing a recent report in the Beijing journal Caijing. But note the irony: It was Deng’s counter-revolution (coinciding with, and part of the same global trend as, the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution”) which broke up the big state collectives of the Mao era into the “tiny, inefficient plots.” The Economist, we may be sure, applauded this at the time. But now that these lands are to be re-consolidated again into big, centralized farms, The Economist once more applauds—because this time it will be under private rather than state auspices. Will this really make any difference to the peasants? And a “proper” (read: capitalist) land market actually does little “to protect farmers from indiscriminate land grabs,” as recent cases from South Korea to Mexico to South Central LA to (obviously!) Palestine make all too clear.

The Economist (reading the Beijing bureaucracy completely wrong, as the new announcement reveals) goes on lamenting the supposed retreat from a sweeping free-trade oriented reform:

This is all the more embarrassing because of the party’s plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of China’s economic reforms in December. Rural residents are much better off than they were in 1978, especially thanks to the growth of non-farming incomes. But city-dwellers have grown richer even more quickly. Migrants from the countryside to the cities are still largely excluded from urban social-security provisions as well as the subsidised education that city-dwellers enjoy.

President Hu Jintao appeared to signal a new approach by paying a visit in September to Xiaogang village in the central province of Anhui. Xiaogang has an almost totemic significance. Peasants there met secretly 30 years ago and agreed to parcel out communal land to individual households. The party has long hailed this action as the beginning of the end of the disastrous Maoist agricultural system. Optimists thought that by going to Xiaogang, Mr Hu was hinting that something similarly big is once again afoot.

But for all the official hype about the Central Committee recent meeting—of “great, profound and far-reaching significance”, said the People’s Daily—the party remains weighed down by taboos. Two years ago it decreed that 120m hectares must be preserved as arable land to ensure food security. That leaves hardly any for conversion to other uses.

Since the meeting, the Chinese media have reported that the basic principle of collective ownership of rural land will remain unchanged. This means village committees, mostly controlled by party appointees, will surely retain considerable say over any land deals. Some reports have said reforms could start with free trade in non-arable rural land. Guangdong Province in the south has partially allowed this since 2005. But officials in Beijing still worry that the practice could result in swathes of farmland being redesignated as non-arable in order to open it up for sale.

Sale to tourism developers, McMansion builders or industrial entrepreneurs would certainly not be in the interests of the peasants. And conversion to “non-farming income” is a more precarious proposition than ever in light of the global financial crisis. We can only hope that the Chinese peasants themselves are not so confused. In the ’30s and ’40s, when the peasants were essentially serfs under an oppressive land-owning class, their demands for land security—which were at the heart of the Chinese Revolution—naturally assumed the vocabulary of nationalization and expropriation. Now that the peasants are essentially serfs under a corrupt one-party state which officially owns all the land, their demands for land security naturally assume the vocabulary of local “ownership rights.” Their fundamental demands have not changed. But their aspirations could end up being grotesquely betrayed if free-trade “reform” is successfully proffered as the answer to their grievances.

In Mexico, moves to allow sale of collective peasant lands (the constitutionally “inalienable” ejidos), or their use as debt collateral, were the central issue that sparked the Zapatista revolt when NAFTA took effect in 1994. (This fact was neatly ignored in a profile of Mexico’s impoverished south in The Economist of this April 24, which portrayed the Zapatista movement only as a response to “race discrimination.”) It was universally understood by southern Mexico’s peasantry that this “reform” would only accelerate landlessness. There is no reason to expect the logic to apply any differently in China.

In South America, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales are taking much-needed measures to secure peasant lands against the threat of enclosure by private interests. Yet, as we have noted, both Hugo and Evo have cozied up to Beijing, and hailed China as an “ideological ally” against US imperialism. Is this merely realpolitick, or are Hugo and Evo just as confused as The Economist?

Finally, we note that nearly simultaneous with the Communist Party plenary, international NGO representatives gathered in Beijing for the 7th Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF)—with a focus this year, Xinhua informed us Oct. 13, on “social and ecological justice.” The meeting’s Final Declaration section on “Food Security” read:

Food safety, sovereignty and access should be at the centre of agricultural and trade policies in order to achieve food security for all and to address the current food crisis.

Governments should realize that there are increasing numbers of people living in hunger. Causes include the speculation on grains for agro fuel, grain futures and increased oil prices. Current privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation policies are marginalizing small food producers and grabbing land for the purpose of profit and speculation.

The AEPF co-sponsors included Focus on the Global South, the Philippines-based Institute for Popular Democracy and the Indonesia Popular Governance Institute. Was there any discussion at the conference of China’s own peasant crisis, or the very bad ideas being posed as its solution?

We’d like to know.

See our last posts on China, the peasant struggle, and peak food.

  1. Chinese land reform, backwards or unprecedented?
    I have seen some reports on this new land reform that imply that Chinese land will now in practice be traded on a free-market, however, the wording appears to explicitly not allow the outright selling of land. I believe the theory behind this land reform is that it maintains the precedent that land is appropriated equally amongst rural villages but allows markets to set the value of the land as opposed to corruptible bureaucrats. This is the primary flaw of the previous Chinese system, that the administrators had authority to take or use land as they pleased and reimburse peasants however they saw fit. While introducing markets clearly contradicts Marxist philosophy, it is a manner of taking power away from bureaucrats and have it remain with the people. The Chinese people want economic growth is it possible this new policy could lead to growth that promotes freedom and justice? I believe this is an application of untested economic theory, and is especially supported by the theories of Karl Polanyi who discussed the unavoidable social and environmental consequences of trading land as a commodity on a free market.

    I have hypothesized that a future economic system will maintain some equality in land ownership even while it is traded over markets in order to increase the efficiency of use without consolidating land with profit oriented corporations or dislocating rural populations. In practice this may be difficult to apply but this theory seems to be approximated by the new land reform in China. If this reform is effective I believe backwards steps in America could lead to a reduction in the damage caused by land being traded on a free-market to the environment and to small communities, and similar reform around the world could help reconcile issues of environmental degradation and social injustice with the globalized world economy (unfortunately this is not going anywhere). Thank you for considering my views and the possibility that this reform is representative of an entirely new economic complex.

  2. “Land reform” for China?

    That was actually broached in a May 1 Public Radio International report on the wave of land-grabbing across China that is expropriating the peasantry anew. The report makes clear the dilemma that a pro-capitalist "land reform" could paradoxically hasten the process of disenfranchisement—without putting it in quite those terms. The report is dateline Chongqing—where municipal governments have been the vehicle of land theft.

    "The land originally belonged to the farmers, right? So we should return rights to the land to them," says Chen Jiaze, vice president of Chengdu's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who advised the local government on land reform. "Then they can invest more in the land, so their harvests will be better, or they can sell the land rights or use them as collateral, so they can do something else to improve their lives."

    Local angry farmers are then quoted, whose lands were taken at a pittance, their homes destroyed, and then denied their day in the local courts, controlled by the same corrupt municipality. 

    Throughout China, some 40 million farmers have lost their land in similar grabs. A 2011 survey by the Seattle-based land rights advocacy group Landesa and People's University in Beijing, found that 43% of farmers surveyed in 17 provinces had been victims of land grabs. Nearly a quarter of those did not receive any compensation. Those who did were given an average of $3,000 per mu (a Chinese unit of land equivalent to 0.16 acres). The local governments that acquired the land then turned around and sold it for, on average, 40 times more.

    "We found that many of these land transfers had not been done properly, in legal terms," says Gao Yu, Landesa's China country director. "More than 60 percent of these were done under a degree of coercion, either by local governments directly or through their agents."

    Some government officials see little problem with this. As they view it, the Communist Party originally gave land rights to farmers as a kind of welfare, ending a feudal system of wealthy landlords and impoverished peasants. The land was never farmers’ outright, under Communist Party rule, only theirs to use. So if the local government sees a better use for it, the reasoning goes, it has a right to take it, as long as it compensates farmers for the money they could have made on harvests.

    And local governments, in recent years, have seen a much better use for rural land – using land sales to fund local government budgets.

    "Local governments run a chronic deficit," says Tom Miller, author of the book China's Urban Billion

    Next are detailed the bureaucratic artifices by which municipalities are kept in the red, and peasants pressured to "lease" their land rights. Then some historical context:

    When China's Communist Party came to power in 1949, it promised to save China’s farmers from oppressive landlords, and give them fields of their own to farm. That worked for a few years, until the State took back the land and introduced collective farming. Then came a politically-caused famine that killed some 40 million people, the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution and, finally, the economic reform era, which returned to individual households the right to farm and profit from their own land. With that, agricultural productivity shot up 80 percent.

    Land grabs are exacerbating an already dangerously wide rural-urban income gap. In the cities, the state owns the land, but individuals can buy 70-year property rights to a building or apartment – which has created significant wealth. In the countryside, village collectives still own the land. The Party says this protect farmers.

    "But what it effectively means is…it puts power into the hands of the village chief, or whoever else can be bribed," says Tom Miller, author of the book China’s Urban Billion. And in actual fact, it doesn’t protect individual farmers at all." [Sic] …

    Outright private ownership of land might be one way to do that, but even Landesa's Gao Yu says, that’s not going to help farmers much, until the rest of the system changes to support their rights – like, having courts be independent of the local governments that seize land. Meanwhile, he says, actually honoring existing rights would be a huge step forward, for farmers, and also for the government’s broader objectives.

    "If farmers have land rights they can count on, our survey found they’re 90 percent more likely to make investments in their land," says Landesa's Gao Yu.

    That makes the land more productive, which gives farmers bigger profits, so they’ll have more to spend on consumer goods. And the government desperately wants Chinese to spend more on consumer goods. So, as the government likes to say, it's a win-win.

    OK, here's the catch we're afraid is slipping past everyone. Will those "rights" that the farmers can count on include the "right" to use their land as a collateral? In that case, how long before the artifice of expropriation-by-debt is extended from municipalities to families? This sounds like a recipe for accelerating elite control of land—if with a greater cover of "legality."