By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
A grisly crime arising out of a clash over land rights in eastern China’s Shandong is the latest illustration of a critical disconnect among farmers, local village authorities and the central government, which has pledged land reforms that have not yet been enacted.
Disputes over illegal land seizures in China have become the country’s dominant form of social unrest in recent years and constitute one of the thorniest problems currently facing the country’s leaders.
The Shandong story erupted one night late in March in a village in Pingdu County, when five men set fire to a tent on village land in which four residents were sleeping, according to an account published by the respected news magazine Caixin. The fire reportedly killed one and left the other three injured, two critically.
The tent had been put up by outraged residents protesting village leaders’ sale of 270 hectares of village-owned land to a property developer in 2006 without having lawfully obtained the necessary residents’ consent. In response, one of the village leaders and the head of a construction company reportedly dispatched five arsonists to torch the tent. According to Caixin, all seven of the men responsible were arrested last month.
In early April, according to China Digital Times, the Central Propaganda Department issued the following instructions to Chinese media: “The media must immediately cool down coverage of the Pingdu homicide case. Discontinue follow-up reporting.”
Such directives, of course, don’t resolve a fundamental ongoing conflict.
Local governments continue to seek income from land transfers because central government funding doesn’t cover their needs. Village residents do not own the land, and they have only the right to farm it for a term of 30 years. When village leaders sell farmland, very often the farmers, who lose the use of their plots, are not properly compensated.
Protests over land grabs have multiplied in recent years: In one recent survey by rural-development institute Landesa, 43% of villagers said that local officials had taken or tried to take their land, and that on the average government payments to farmers were less than 3% of the market value of the land. It is no wonder that conflicts over land constituted more than 20% of the so-called “mass conflicts” in 2012.
The Pingdu residents claim that the government never notified them of the sale, the amount of property involved or the compensation that they would receive, according to Caixin. A former employee of the party committee told the magazine that village officials had faked villagers’ signatures so the deal could proceed without their knowledge. The problems in Pingdu, it said, “could never have occurred if there were checks on the local government’s power.”
It may be that higher-level government units were complicit in the illegal land sale, as residents in the Guangdong village of Wukan alleged in another widely publicized case of illegal land expropriation several years ago.
The problem is compounded by the fast pace of urbanization. As the value of rural land increases, developers have become increasingly interested in purchasing village-owned land—and, as one Wall Street Journal story put it recently, local governments are “growing ever more addicted” to revenues from land sales. A report issued by the Ministry of Land and Resources states that local government land sales in 2013 raised 4.2 billion yuan ($682 billion), a 56% increase over last year.
The Chinese Communist Party has long been aware of the basic problem resulting from the limited rights of farmers over the property on which their livelihood depends. At a major conclave in November, Party leaders promised that “farmers will be given more property rights,” and in January the Central Committee of the Party and the State Council issued a document on rural policy that stated that farmers will be allowed “to transfer or mortgage” land which they farm under contract with their villages to “farms, rural cooperatives and agricultural enterprises.” The farmers would remain the legal “owners,” according to official media reports.
Experiments with expanding famers’ rights had already been underway before the November meeting, as noted in a prior column. But the reforms will take time to implement. Land laws will have to be amended to clarify the rights involved, and the current system for registration of land rights must be expanded. The system does not yet exist country-wide and will not be finished for five years, according to China’s minister of agriculture.
In the meantime, village leaders will likely continue to require sources of income that they can use to increase available revenue for village needs, while the central government will have to use laws and policies to restrain illegal land takings in the countryside. To be effective, Beijing needs to overcome the often critical disconnect between national laws and policies and local governments that must enforce them.
Because conditions vary greatly across the country, any reforms can only be carried out incrementally, often only tentatively. It should be no surprise that the problems are massive, and that the party-state will have to shoulder heavy burdens in order to expand the rights of China’s farmers.