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Land use and farmers’ revolts in China

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Winnowing and cleaning wheat in Zhuanzui village, in Huangzhong county
In India there have been strong protests against governments acquiring farmlands to give to industries through the Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These peaked about two years ago. Much of China’s internal revolts through the last decade also centers around similar issues. An archival article from Marxism talks about land use reforms from about two years ago which seemed to have brought some relief to China:

China’s urbanization process has reached a critical juncture, inequality between town and country is producing explosive revolts surrounding the cities. The problem of how to contain these revolts is at the core of policy making and is reflected in conflicts inside the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

The latest pronouncement on agricultural reform is intended to lower the income gap between town and country and double the yearly income of peasants from $600 US to $1200 by 2020. This is to be carried out by increased spending on public infrastructure, social security, pensions, medical care and education in the rural areas. The proposals include the provision to extend land use rights to the peasants from 30 to 70 years and make them legally tradable. Following the Central Committee meeting which was said to have approved this move, an announcement was released which barely mentioned the reform. Some days passed before the details were released indicating that a split had opened up within the Central Committee.

The Xinhua news agency confirmed this, “When the document was drafted, some have argued that the new policy might create a few landlords and landless farmers who will have no means for a living. And arable lands to be used for non-farming purposes, might threaten the country’s food safety. To ease such fears, the CPC Central Committee also provided in the document that the country would carry out ‘the most stringent farmland protection system’ and urged local authorities to firmly safeguard the 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) minimum farmland set line.” (19 October, 2008).
Small Village, China

Cash from the sale of land rights is supposed to facilitate urbanization. The peasants who sell their land use rights will have money to move to the cities as workers or petty traders. The land rights transferred to companies and state entities will then be developed both as extensions to urban expansion and as industrial agriculture. The state seeks to emulate infrastructural development of the east coast creating hundreds of intermediate size cities in interior provinces to cater for approximately 10 million new migrants a year.

The background to this is that rural rebellions have escalated over recent years. Yu Jianrong director of the Rural Development Institute’s Social Issues Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences gave explicit warnings to the Chinese Communist Party leadership of a revolutionary crisis developing in the countryside and new proletarian zones in the interior provinces.

“In the next decade or two, China will likely enter a period of frequent social conflict. Peasants are likely to join hands with workers and members of the lower intellectual class and confront the elitist alliance that dominated society, creating political, economic and social upheaval in China. To prevent social unrest from triggering a revolution, it is imperative to address issues of social injustice as well as create the effective channels for their expression.” (China Security Spring 2007 p.3).

Land requisition has been the primary source of rural conflicts in recent years. In areas surrounding the expanding cities, government land seizures for urban development are carried out with scant regard for the formal legal rights of the peasants, and with compensation below market rates. Local governments in much of China seize land simply for its potential as a revenue source, from rental or leasing to industrial or real estate groups.

The Congress of the All China Federation of Trade Unions this week announced that membership has reached 209 million, 9 million above their target for September and an increase of 16 million since January 2008. Of the total membership, 67 million are migrants, a third of whom are now unionised. Demands are growing that the Union take more militant action, Labour disputes have been rising 20 per cent a year in recent years, reaching 410,000 disputes last year. Following the introduction of the new Labour Law in January 2008, many thousands of export oriented companies closed down, or moved to where the labour is cheaper, e.g. Bangladesh, India or Thailand. Now that many export markets are frozen factory closures are accelerating. At the Hong Kong owned toy maker, Smart Union in Guangdong province, thousands of workers lost their jobs last week, when the bosses shut shop and ran away. Thousands of angry workers have been gathering outside the township government demanding that it pay their back wages, even though the company is a privately owned company. The way that local governments create joint ventures, take rental revenue, sell land use rights and enrich themselves by deals with private companies make government agencies the natural target of the workers whose bosses flee the country.

In India various governments have slowly back-tracked from their earlier position of asserting a sovereign right to land. This was a political change, without change in law. This lack of legal backing to reforms remains one of the key areas in which India seems to lag China.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 20, 2011 at 6:53 am

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