China: On privatization of rural land

All on Sale?

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each rural household has the right to use a portion of the collective land of a village, and this right can be withdrawn if the land is left idle, or if no one is actually occupying the grounds.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, an anonymous reader so reassumes the position of supporters:


Have you really understood this policy? This decision by the government was inevitable. Concentration of land in the hand of fewer helps intensive production, and only with intensive production it is possible to obtain a profitable production, everyone who has studied economics knows this. At the same time, the transfer of land is not without compensation, the farmers who sell their land will be able to work in rural industries, and thus leave the land but not the village. In China, nine hundred millions peasants are currently excluded from market economy; with this policy, the government wants to drag them into a market economy system.

On the same lines, China’s Future General adds from his blog:



Something that few people know is that today a lot of land in the country is left idle. This is because the young people in a family all go to the cities to work, and the old people have no strength to cultivate; besides, cultivating the land gives no profit, so they might as well leave the land as it is, at the most old people can cultivate a bit of vegetable for personal use, and no more than that. So why not giving the land to someone who actually cultivates it? Today no one wants to rent land from households, because unless an investor comes from the city, and leases his family’s land, this would mean not earning any money. But such cases are rare. And then, are farmers’ collectives actually working? I don’t think so. Of course, this is better than cultivation made by single households, but the money earned has to be shared among too many people. In foreign countries, ten people manage one hundred acres, and thus they share the profits among ten; but in China, the same profits have to be shared among a hundred people, and they become obviously too small. In China the people cultivating the land are too many, and the government really needs to diminish the number of farmers.

Despite being generally in favor, many Internet users do not hide perplexities about the envisaged privatization plan. In a popular forum, some users suggest:


The central policy is good, the only thing is that in order to enforce it through the provincial, the municipal, the township government and so on, it will require more strength.


The question is how to ensure that peasant will be voluntarily giving away their land use right, and how to ensure that peasants receive a fair compensation. Otherwise, this will just be a start of a new land confiscation. The concentration of industrial resources has already happened, now they will start with rural resources!


The policies of the central governmental are always very good, the data nice and clear, but in these figures there are too many flaws. The economic statistics, the cereal production statistics, the land statistics, and even the population statistics are all counterfeited [by local governments]; who wastes money paying taxes does not receive anything in exchange, just counterfeited stuff, how can’t this be a tragedy!

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”:


Because [collective ownership of land] is the last bastion of out socialist system. All the other things can be privatized, but the land can't, otherwise China will transform into a capitalist system.

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:

首先,第一个后果是:小农依赖农民工工资维持小农家庭经营,如果长期这样下去,农民工在城市安居乐业就不可能,减少农民也不可能,城市化就会彻底失败;如果没有农民工工资维持小农家庭经营,小农就会大面积破产,“五个转变 。
后果之三:中国农民正在失去国内和国外“两个市场”,国内的土地密集型农产品市场正在逐步被跨国农业集团占领;国外的劳动密集型农产品市场正在被进入中国的日韩等“高科技农业园”抢占 。

I believe that the wrong policy of rural modernization has already produced many negative consequences:
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。

Recently, theorists have paid much attention on the problems of the countryside, and yet many scholars keep on using western theories to address the basic issues of countries that are different from the west. […] There is no evidence or experience for having to use these theories in the context of the rural areas of developing countries. Conversely, in almost every big developing country that has adopted western-like land privatization, land has been largely expropriated and slums have appeared, and this has provoked social turmoil. […] As a matter of fact, the reason why western countries could so smoothly achieve industrialization, urbanization and intensive rural production, is thanks to colonialism and imperialism. If we take aside these two bastions of western ethnocentrism, western industrialization is impossible to conceive.

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 forum platform:


Rich people will buy the land, but will the new generations be able to have a part of this? Selling our land to foreigners, isn’t this national betrayal? If I decide to sell my land and go to the city, a piece of land good for cultivation would be wrecked by cement. If we let collusion of local governments and entrepreneurs go on, what will we eat in the future? Those who sit in an office and eat well don’t know how hard it is to cultivate grain by grain.

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

我是一个农民,为了生计。我只能出卖土地了。卖了好大一 笔钱,生活过得还不锖。二十年后,土地钱吃完了,穷的叮叮响,于是到土地家做长工,十年后还是一样,更穷了,为了生存权,于是只能揭杆起义了

I am a farmer, and I struggle for living; that’s why I cannot help but selling my land. After I get some money for it, I could live decently for a while. But 20 years later, after I have spent all the money from the sale of the land, I will have to go to the country and do manual jobs, after ten years I will be just as poor. For acquiring a right to exist, there is no other way than uprising.

From his blog, Yu Ran describes his investigation in the countryside and a conversation with some peasants:


In every province we can see the phenomenon of farmers who give up their collective housing, give up their use right on the land, and go to the city to work together with their families. But when they return to their homes because they have lost their job, they find out that they have lost their most basic life guarantee: land. Even if there is a new project of reforming land use regulations, most of these farmers who have lost job and land have given up their right before the reform, they still have the label of “farmers” on their residence permit, and so land still remains their only way for surviving.
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.

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