China's Slow-Motion Land Reform

By Zhang, Jialin | Policy Review, February-March 2010 | Go to article overview
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China's Slow-Motion Land Reform

Zhang, Jialin, Policy Review

EVER SINCE CHINA embarked on economic reforms some 30 years ago, the country's agricultural development has always lagged behind overall economic growth. The income gap between farmers and urban residents has also consistently expanded, making rural areas one of the unstable factors in China's political and economic life. The root cause, as scholars and analysts point out, is the fact that the land rights have never been clearly delineated and protected in rural areas. The farmers do not own their land. Moreover, the country's dual structure of governance of dividing urban and rural household registration only deepened and perpetuated the income gap. Beijing's leadership has tried to institute various land reforms at its annual decision-making meetings over the past 30 years but made little progress. At long last, the party plenum of October 2008 recognized the importance of reforming land rights if agricultural productivity was to be improved.

From private to collective ownership

AT the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the People's Political Consultative Committee, then the supreme legislative organ, declared the "land to the tiller" principle in its "Joint Guidelines," which served as China's interim constitution.

Under this principle, hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers were assigned plots of land and dwellings, according to household size. Each household's members were to enjoy full property rights over their land and house, the rights to farm, live on their land, buy and sell, transfer, and give away the property. No one could infringe on these rights. In 1952, the government had issued an official document--"Certificate of Land and House Ownership"--to each household. Some rural households have kept these yellowish certificates even until this day, although they were long ago useless.

Sadly, this honeymoon was short-lived. Starting from around 1953, the Communist Party began a collectivization campaign in villages across the country. At that time, China desperately needed funds for its industrialization. Agricultural output remained the biggest source of investment throughout the decade. According to historical data, agricultural surplus accounted for 30 percent of total farm output. The central government tried to raise the agricultural tax but immediately encountered strong resistance from farmers. Given this situation, collective land ownership and state control of agricultural surplus seemed to be a logical option for the policymakers.

The process of collectivization has been gradual. At first, farmers were forced to join agricultural production cooperatives while still keeping their ownership of land. But as collective farming spread, farmers gave their land-use rights to these cooperatives. In 1956, the People's Congress in Beijing officially reclaimed all land rights from the farmers and turned them over to the "collectives." Farmers, now stripped of their land, became "members of the cooperatives."

The next step was to transform these cooperatives into people's communes, which were established in 1958. The communes, in turn divided into production brigades and teams, had exercised governmental, political, and economic functions. Farmers were assigned to a certain production team to do daily fieldwork. At year-end, they received "work points" according to the hours they worked. Some of the work points were paid in the form of grain, while a small part could be paid in cash. Farmers also contributed their private animals and personal belongings, including kitchenware, to the commune. They stopped cooking at home and dined at the commune's public canteens. Some people's communes even declared they had entered the era of the "communist society." Obviously, this farming system was beset by inefficiencies and waste, and could never motivate farmers to work harder and increase agricultural output.

The de-privatization finally came to the countryside at enormous costs.

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