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.
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.
does nothing to change this reality.
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.
didn't even get our noise-compensation fee," said
a villager from Loutai, which has been slated for
eviction and demolition.
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.
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"
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
''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
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
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