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Conflicts over Land in China

Landless Peasants and Social Stability
3 March 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

Petitioners Line up in Beijing (Daniel Michaeli, 11/2008)

John Garnaut of the Sydney Morning Herald says rural land disputes could lead to “revolutionary turmoil” in China, citing Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This is a very sensitive issue in China. (Indeed, imagery relating to government land-grabs led Chinese officials to stop showing versions of the film Avatar.)

But after studying these very issues in China in 2007 and 2008, I would caution readers that truly revolutionary turmoil from land disputes per se is highly unlikely.

These land disputes occur in times of economic plenty, when companies are looking to expand their operations out of cities into surrounding villages. Landless peasants are not highly destabilizing when the economy is good and they can find jobs in cities.

I would flip around Garnaut’s point: in economic hard times, land disputes are likely to become much less common as corrupt local officials have much less to gain from them; but the products of earlier land grabs–landless peasants–could prove to be a destabilizing force.

Each year, thousands of people, particularly from villages located near China’s ever-expanding cities, are removed from their homes and given inadequate compensation, only to see local government officials become rich after selling their land to corporations. Last year, local governments earned some $233 billion from such sales. Compensating for the effect of bribes, the actual number perhaps would be much higher.

Many victims of land grabs end up in Beijing petitioning the central government for help (see photo above). The Chinese government has proven able to manage petitions and even protests, by offering occasional incentives, imprisoning many, and simply dragging its feet.

But in the end, regardless of the outcome of these land disputes, simple economics demands that much of the rural population moves into cities one way or another. This is something the Chinese government seems to be slowly recognizing; for example, this week, a dozen or so Chinese newspapers carried the same editorial calling for change to the Chinese hukou household registration system–a system that has handicapped rural migrants for decades.

Having somewhere between 500 and 800 million people working in agriculture is unsustainable, even for a country as large as China. And as long as there are jobs in urban areas, rural residents can continue moving into cities, where they can be more productive. (This year, there is actually an excess of urban jobs and a shortage of labor.)

The big unknown is what would happen in the event of a serious economic downturn. Chinese scholars have argued against privatization of rural land because they say land is an economic lifeline of last resort for peasants. I don’t expect China to experience an economic downturn for quite some time. But if there are no jobs in cities, what would the peasants who’d already lost their lifelines do?

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