Institutions in Transition: Land Ownership, Property Rights, and Social Conflict in China

Institutions in Transition: Land Ownership, Property Rights, and Social Conflict in China

Institutions in Transition: Land Ownership, Property Rights, and Social Conflict in China

Institutions in Transition: Land Ownership, Property Rights, and Social Conflict in China


China's urban sprawl has led to serious social cleavages. Unclear land and property rights have resulted in an uneasy alliance between real estate companies and local authorities, with most willing to strike illegal deals over land. The results have been devastating. Farmers live in fear that the land they till today will be gone tomorrow, while urban citizens are regularly evicted from their homes to make way for new skyscrapers and highways. These shocking incidents underscore the urgency of the land question in China. The recent conviction of the Chinese Minister for Land Resources and the forced evictions that have led to the injury and death of ordinary Chinese citizens highlight the case for land reform. Against this backdrop, many scholars criticize China's lack of privatization and titling of property. This monograph, however, demonstrates that these critically depend on timing and place. Land titling is imperative for the wealthier regions, yet, may prove detrimentalin areas with high poverty. The book argues that China's land reform can only succeed if the clarification of property rights is done with caution and ample regard for regional variations.


A book examining China's land policies and their socio-economic impact on rural society should not go unnoticed. First of all, because it addresses issues that have risen to the surface in modern China as we witness it today. Second, because this volume appears to be the first of its kind devoted entirely to the subject of the institutional design of land property rights in China. and finally, because it is a book written with an eye for much detail and with an extraordinary understanding of the political, social, and legal developments which have taken place in China in recent years.

Frankly, I am not surprised to find that a book with these merits is written by Peter Ho. I have had the privilege of being assisted by him while serving during two consecutive terms in office as a minister in the Dutch government, each time benefiting from his skills as an interpreter during my various official visits to China. From 1997 onwards Peter accompanied me on those visits and facilitated my discussions with my Chinese counterparts.

It was during one of those visits when Peter served as my official interpreter that I discussed the subject of land reform in China with the Chinese Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tang Jiaxuan. During a gathering of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) that took place in Berlin in the spring of 1999, we discussed the role of China in the world. Tang Jiaxuan and I agreed then that it was not a matter for discussion whether China would have a major impact on global developments and international relations, but only when this would happen. I added, however, that there were still many hurdles to be taken by China.

The adequate protection of human rights and the establishment of a truly free society, for one. To see China develop into a liberal democracy where people can speak their minds and worship their gods, where they can live without the fear of arbitrary arrest and torture: that is not only in the interest of the Chinese citizens. It is in the interest of the whole world community. Chris Patten, the former and last British Governor in Hong Kong, said it right: 'Societies that treat their own people intolerably, governments whose own laws are a farce, are bad and potentially dangerous neighbours.' Proper and fair laws, a strong rule of law, should therefore be part and parcel of a strong and prosperous China with an important role in international relations. Land property rights, the reform of the Chinese land market, should be covered by those laws, just as civil rights and political liberties should.

Especially in the light of China's recent entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), it is important that China introduces all necessary reforms to accompany its transition to a market-based and open economy. Reform of its land market, which has lagged behind for many years, should be part and parcel of them. There are several reasons why the momentum generated by China's wto membership should be seized to take the necessary measures in the area of land ownership.

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