Academic journal article China Perspectives

Land Rights in Rural China since 1978

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Land Rights in Rural China since 1978

Article excerpt


When Deng Xiaoping initiated a series of economic and social reforms in 1978, rural society reorganisation constituted a critical first step. To quote Barry Naughton,(2) "It was in the countryside that reforms succeeded first, and it was the dramatic success of rural reforms that cleared the way for continuing and progressively more profound change."

The very core of this founding reform was institutional. A significant number of ri^its were transferred from collective structures to farm households, and this engaged a dynamics of extension of individual rights that is still far from being over today.

Over this period, the importance of rural reforms cannot be overstated. In 1978, more than 82 percent of the population, almost 800 million people, was rural, while agriculture employed 70.5 percent of Chinese workforce. Thirty years later, more than 55 percent of the population, close to 730 million people, was considered rural, while agriculture still represented 40.8 percent of employment.(3) Land was and remains a major element of most of Chinese people's daily lives and a decisive determinant of Chinese economic performance. This importance is well acknowledged by the central authorities: in January 2010, for the seventh consecutive year, Document No. I, jointly issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCPCC) and the State Council of the National's People Congress (SCNPC), was dedicated to rural issues and land rights problems.

This article aims at recalling the main steps in the evolution of institutional arrangements over rural land, and at identifying their main consequences, successes, and shortcomings. Its main objective is to summarise and discuss two dimensions of research on land rights issues in rural China that have not been synthesised by previous literature reviews: it will provide an extended inventory of the laws and regulations on rural land rights in China, and discuss existing research on the local level determinants of actual land rights institutional arrangements in Chinese villages. The main objective is to emphasise and understand the striking discrepancy between central regulations on rural land and the actual functioning of local land institutions.

The first part of the paper will describe the key official regulations on rural land as well as the actual functioning of land arrangements at the local level, while the second section will review the empirical studies on these institutions, with a special focus on the most recent period.

Rural land in China: National regulation and local practices

In 1978, the dynamics of collectivisation engaged in 1949 after the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was reversed, and a movement of increased individualisation began. This section first briefly recalls the organisation of rural China before 1978, and then delineates the evolution of official laws and regulations on rural land during the reforms.

The dynamics of collectivisation: 19491978

When the CCP seized power in 1949, to a great extent with peasant support, one of its first policies was the Land Reform Law of June 1950,(4) which redistributed land from landlords and rich peasants to poorer ones. By 1952, close to a half of all agricultural land was redistributed,<5) with roughly 60 percent of the farmers, 300 million people, being net winners.(6) This law gave extended land rights to farmers, including ownership, use, and transfer ri^its guaranteed by land ownership certificates. This first reform then asserted private property over evenly distributed land.

However, during the First Five-Year Plan, starting in 1953, rural people were first encouraged and then forced to join collectivist structures. In 1955, the CCPCC published its Decisions on Agricultural Cooperation, made into law by the SCNPC in 1956 through the Charter of Agricultural Production Cooperatives. These documents respected private ownership of rural land, but encouraged peasants to organise production collectively. …

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