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    Greater China
     Mar 20, 2007
Property law denies farmers the good earth
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - China's national parliament passed a controversial property law on Friday that, despite lofty-sounding clauses and media hype, fails to safeguard the ownership rights of more than half the population.

China's 750 million rural residents cannot own farmland, a legacy of Maoist collectivization in the 1950s, which violently persecuted landowners. Instead, they must lease from the state and have little or no recourse when local officials move to take it. The new

law does nothing to change this reality.

"How can you enact a piece of national legislation that is inapplicable to some 60% of the country's population?" mused Wen Tiejun, a senior expert on rural issues at Renmin University in Beijing. "It only goes to show that China's rural and urban division is going to continue for a long time."

This divide is visible on the fringes of China's booming cities, where peasants witness the wealth accumulated by their urban countrymen while failing to become prosperous themselves.

In Beijing, where the government is proudly preparing to host next year's Summer Olympic Games, the building boom is blamed for depriving thousands of people of their land. As the capital is expanding its airport, building a new, futuristic terminal to enable it to handle 60 million travelers a day, peasants on the city outskirts have been forced off their land and cheated out of their compensation.

"We didn't even get our noise-compensation fee," said a villager from Loutai, which has been slated for eviction and demolition.

"Local officials told us they would use the noise-compensation fee paid by the airport developer to build us cheap new housing, but we are worried we will never see the money and we will still be asked to pay a lot to buy the new houses,'' complained Gang, a Loutai villager in the Shunyi area who requested that only his first name be revealed.

While the new property law is a milestone in China's rapid dismantling of the foundations of the state-planned economy, its provisions will benefit mainly homeowners in the cities. Their numbers have risen dramatically in recent years since the government stopped providing free housing in the 1990s, as part of the socialist "cradle to grave" welfare system.

Enshrining private-property rights in legislation for the first time since China's communist takeover in 1949, the law stipulates: "The lawful property of an individual person shall be protected by law, and illegally taking possession, looting and destruction of such property by any unit or individual is prohibited."

However symbolic in a country that is still nominally communist, the new private-property law does not alter the supremacy of state ownership. All the land still technically belongs to the state, but in the cities, urbanities may now buy and sell their properties under leases of between 50 and 70 years.

In the countryside, by contrast, farmers enjoy only land-usage rights over periods of time and not title deeds that can be bought or sold. Even for the limited time that peasants are allowed to use the land, they are barred from borrowing against it to invest and expand agricultural production.

True, no other piece of legislation has generated so much controversy and debate. Yet the way this property reform ignores Chinese peasants - the bulk of the country's population - is hardly the most contentious issue angering opponents of the law.

Ideology has been the buzzword ringing through a record seven readings by top legislators and more than 100 working meetings of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

Old-style leftists have attacked the legislation for straying too far from the Marxist foundations of communist China and embracing capitalism. They worry that the law could lead to a fire sale of state assets and have blocked its passage for years.

Gong Xiantian, a leading Marxist economist who was a critic of the law in its draft form, argues that it undermines the legal foundation of China's socialist economy, which is based on public ownership.

"Equal protection of private and public ownership is the feature of the market economy, not a socialist economy," he said.

Chinese leaders have responded to the leftists' concerns by allowing rare public discussion. The revised draft of the law includes lengthy paragraphs concerning the primacy of the "socialist system" and "state ownership".

What the new legislation lacks, though, advocates of farmers' rights argue, are any provisions that protect farmers from land grabs. Local governments that often work hand in hand with greedy developers will retain the power to convert agricultural land to other uses if it is deemed to be in the public interest.

"The new law would make little or no difference to the situation in the countryside," said rural expert Wen Tiejun.

Many localities rely on these sales to finance their underfunded budgets, a trend that has led to a wave of rural protest in the country with complaints of unfair compensation.

Appropriation of land from farmers is the most frequent subject of petitions by Chinese farmers, which when left unanswered often triggers violent protests.

Government officials ''should not turn a deaf ear to farmers' requests", warned a senior agricultural researcher recently. A single petition could lead to a "mass incident" or even a riot, said Chen Xiwen, director of the government's central group on rural work.

The Ministry of Public Security said 87,000 mass incidents were reported in 2005, up by 6.6% from 2004. More than 65% of mass incidents in rural areas are attributed to land expropriation.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called land the "core issue" facing Chinese farmers. Last year, he vowed harsh punishment for those who seize farmland illicitly. But farmers continue losing land, with official figures stating that nearly 200,000 hectares of rural land are taken from them every year for industrial purposes.

(Inter Press Service)

China's rough ideological transition (Mar 14, '07)


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