For those not quite interested in fireworks and dumplings, the Spring Festival mainly becomes a yearly pretext for reflecting upon the condition of Chinese peasants and the state of China’s countryside.
During the week of hearty celebrations for the new year, millions of temporary workers return from the cities where they are employed in manual, low-level occupations to their hometown in the countryside, where their family still lives and owns usage rights over a piece of land. Chinese migrants keep their family in the country for two main reasons: the first is that, under the current land use regulations, each rural household has the right to use a portion of the collective land of a village, and this right can be withdrawn if the land is left idle, or if no one is actually occupying the grounds. Having a member of the family still residing in the countryside, thus, becomes a feeble guarantee of not being deprived of the the land. The other reason, of course, is that migrants in cities do not have access to the basic social services –education, primary health- they could enjoy in their home village, so they prefer keeping parents and children in the country even though cultivating the land is often not a profitable activity for many Chinese farmers. And yet, all this is about to undergo profound transformations.
On October 12, the Plenary Assembly of the CCP approved the “Resolutions concerning the many important problems in the development of reform in the countryside”, a law draft aiming at boosting development of the rural areas in the country. Among the bold targets listed in the draft, the text pledges the duplication of the current average income of peasants by 2020, together with a generalized improvement of the living standards, consumption power, and cultural level of rural population in the countryside. For those used to look through the boasting and overly ceremonious texts of Chinese laws, there seems to be nothing to be excited about. And yet, disguised among the 20 and more pages of vacuous legalisms, a line has given the jitters to many Chinese, farmers and not: the Government plans to promote new forms of management of the rural land, which include transfer, sale, sublet, and shareholding.
In sum, a cryptic sentence seems to finally give the green light to privatization of land. As a matter of fact, rural privatization is already widely practiced by local governments, which confiscate land from farmers, and then sell it to private investors at high prices. Nonetheless, in case the draft were to be transformed into effective law, trading and privatization of land would be given a steep and unprecedented acceleration. Comprehensibly, this perspective has generated fervent debates among the Chinese Internet community, and since October forums and weblogs have been invaded by discussions and judgments about rural privatization. What is ultimately the prevalent opinion of webnauts towards land reform?
On one hand, many web users recognize the positive intentions behind the law framework and, at least on the paper, support privatization of rural land. In the forum of www.sohu.com, an anonymous reader so reassumes the position of supporters:
On the same lines, China’s Future General adds from his blog:
Despite being generally in favor, many Internet users do not hide perplexities about the envisaged privatization plan. In a popular sohu.com forum, some users suggest:
In spite of these voices of approval, it seems that the majority of Chinese web users still keeps a very skeptical look towards the perspective of abolishing the collective ownership of rural land, and so losing the last bastion of socialism in a country torn between a hasty transition to the market economy, and resisting elements of a fading past. On the pages of Baidu Answers, hgf168 so answers to the question “why can't Chinese land be privatized”:
In the past years, Chinese websites have conducted surveys to sound off the opinion of peasants towards land privatization; the results have always been of strong opposition to reforming the current system. In regard, Chinese web users seem to have the same unconvinced attitude: in fact, roaming forums and blogs, the voices that oppose the plan largely outnumber those favorable to privatization.
Among the skeptical voices that have risen against rural reform, the one of Li Changping’s emerges. Mr. Li, a renowned rural governmental officer who keeps a much-frequented blog about rural issues, wrote a famous article right at the time of the Plenary Assembly, in which he urges China not to follow the example of the Philippines, which abruptly privatized their land causing great social turmoil and the impoverishment of the population:
Firstly, farming households largely depend on the income of peasants working in the city; if things continue this way, peasants will not be able to work and live in the cities, and at the same time the number of rural population will not decrease. Urbanization is therefore bound to fail. If small-scale agriculture is merely supported by the incomes of migrant workers in cities, all these small agricultural activities are bound to go bankrupt, and the land will fall in the hands of entrepreneurs and foreign companies.
Secondly, the rural economy contributes for 12% of the country’s GDP, but of this just 5% is produced by peasants through husbandry, while the rest is produced by non-rural population. 5% of the GDP having to sustain 60% of China’s population, this is of course not possible.
Thirdly, Chinese peasants are losing touch with both the internal and the external rural market. The internal one, because the market of intensive production is gradually falling into the hands of big corporations; the external one, because the market of labor-intensive is being penetrated by high-technology Korean and Japanese companies.
For these reasons, we should follow the Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese example in rural modernization, and instead avoid the wrong road taken by the Philippines.
On the pages of his blog Wen Tiejun, a prominent journalist and economist, uses even sharper tones to attack the idea of land privatization:
近年来理论界很关注“三农”问题，但不少学者却继续以西方的理论逻辑来套用于国情不同的本土问题。[。。。] 但把这种理论逻辑直接套用在发展中国家的“三农”问题上，则显然缺乏经验依据。反而是几乎所有人口过亿的大型发展中国家，在继承或采行西方制度之后，普遍受制于耕者无其田和城市贫民窟化，并由此造成社会动乱。[。。。] 事实上，西方发达国家得以顺利实现（请注意这里突出的是“顺利”）工业化、城市化和农业规模化、产业化的前提，本质是殖民主义和帝国主义。离开西方中心主义派生的这两个主流，西方模式的现代化就无从谈起。
The positions of these two analysts have received warm praise by Chinese web users, especially as they stir the nationalist feelings that are strongly diffused in the young population. An anonymous mobile phone user posted an inflamed comment on the sohu.com forum platform:
Besides, a large part of the web community is concerned with the conditions of peasants, and with the consequences that land privatization could have on the life of poor farmers. Here is a comment posted by a farmer about the privatization plan on sohu.com:
From his blog, Yu Ran describes his investigation in the countryside and a conversation with some peasants:
The phenomenon of unemployed, land-deprived farmers cannot be disregarded. Their problem is not a matter of high or low standards of living, of difference of income between the cities and the countryside; their problem is a matter of survival. Many scholars brag about “sustaining the farmers’ consumption rates, stimulating internal demand”; but what money should farmers who have lost all their basic life guarantees spend? Having such a lack of foresight on these economic problems will have positive or negative effects on our “harmonious society”?
In sum, for most Chinese web users a reform of rural land only risks to give way to an even more ferocious impoverishment of the countryside and of its farmers. In order to obtain the favors of an increasingly conscious Internet public opinion, the government will have to give convincing explaination on how to fight land expropriation, and on how to improve the conditions of farmers and migrant workers. Although inhabitants of a virtual world, Chinese bloggers seem to have a clear idea of the tangible needs of the rural population.