China’s Rural Land Grabs: Endangering Social Stability – Analysis


By B. R. Deepak

Last month, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the top think tank in China released the findings of a rural survey, in which 60 percent of the farmers in 1,564 surveyed villages in 17 provinces and autonomous regions revealed that their land has been confiscated, and that they were unsatisfied with the compensation they received. The report was silent on the number of illegal confiscations, but reported that “Illegal land confiscation has become the biggest threat to Chinese farmers’ land rights and conflicts related to land have become a threat to the stability of China’s rural society.” In response to the report, a recent circular published on the Chinese government’s website ( has warned the provincial governments over the evictions of farmers from their lands.

China has lost millions of hectares of arable land since the reforms. In recent years, in order to regain some of the lost land, the Chinese government has initiated reforms in some of the selected rural areas that encourage the rural people to move from their old homes into new residential buildings while the houses would be demolished and land cultivated into farmland. The move is designed to retain farmland while improving farmers’ living conditions. Top agriculture scientist Lin Yifu, Lin observes that it would be catastrophic to destroy the natural villages and construct mini cities (xiuzhen chengshi) in the villages. The Ministry of Land and Resources admitted recently that the provincial governments in more than 20 provinces have been found to have forced farmers to abandon their homes and to move into apartment buildings. The provincial governments, in order to boost their political image and local revenues and GDP, sell the right of land use to developers. The forced evictions has been a cause of concern for the central government, as the resentment has resulted into various modes of protests, petitions, demonstrations, sit-ins and even confrontation with the local government machinery. What are the reasons behind such forced evictions? The most important one that the Chinese government has been grappling with, is the land use policy.


The land in rural China belongs to collective organizations according to Land Contracting Law (tudi chengbaofa) LCL. The collectives in turn contract the land to peasants through the Household Responsibility System (HRS) that was implemented during the 1980s. However, there is another law called Land Management Law (tudi guanlifa) LML, that makes it mandatory for the peasants to vacate arable land for urbanization and industrialization. Both the Laws have been used by the central as well local governments to their own advantage and have forced various villagers in the city suburbs and rural areas to vacate their land at the issuance of a single eviction notice. Secondly, along with the HRS came the system of land readjustment meant to provide for egalitarian distribution of land (which anyhow is a thing of the past now) but created problems. From its extensive fieldwork in China’s 17 provinces since 1987, the Rural Development Institute (RDI) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences where this author was a visiting fellow during 2006-07 found out that it was the readjustment of land that made peasantry apprehensive about further inputs and investment in their land on account of adjustments and the transfer of land rights.

In the light of these problems, since 1988 based on its fieldwork findings, the RDI recommended to the Chinese policymakers that there was an urgent need to bring in additional laws and policies to increase the tenure security and well-being of China’s rural population. The Government responded positively to these recommendations and brought in a 30-year land use rights policy as a legal requirement in a new land management law in 1998. In August 2002, the Standing Committee of the National Peoples’ Committee adopted Rural Land Contracting Law (RLCL) which offered substantial additional assurance of farmers’ 30-year rights, narrowing any possible remaining grounds for readjustments, detailing what is to be in the written contract, explicit equal land right for women and setting forth a comprehensive range of remedies for farmers whose land rights are violated. The RLCL spells out, for the first time, farmers’ rights to carry out transactions with their land rights, including not only lease, but assignment of the full 30-year right.

In order to implement the RLCL and other related policies, the Chinese government brought in other regulations such as the “Contractual management right transfer method of rural land” which was approved by the 2nd standing meeting of the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) on January 7, 2005, and went into effect on March 1, 2005. The new regulation allowed the peasants to transfer their contracted land to other parties and stipulated that the income originating from such transfers should go to the contractor alone. The grantee could subcontract the land but has to acquire the assent of former contractor. According to the 2006 white paper of the MOA, 5% of the contracted land area was voluntarily subcontracted, transferred, hired and mutually exchanged by the contractor in 2005. Furthermore, in order to settle the disputes originating from such transfers, the MOA is working on arbitration for land conflict management.

Perhaps because of growing pressure to increase land for non-agricultural uses especially the lucrative real estate developments, local governments, who monopolize the sale of land-use rights, are making huge profits by buying land from farmers at low prices, and selling it to developers at higher prices. Such profits have become a “secondary source of revenue” in some localities, resulting in rampant corruption. The move of the local governments has forced peasants to voice their frustration and discontent in various ways throughout China. The protests have forced the government to readjust its land policy and bring the farmland under strict control and promote the reform of the government’s land requisition and land management systems. Li Jianqin, Director of the Law Enforcement and Supervision Bureau under the Ministry of Land and Resources, revealed that there were a total of 53,000 cases of illegal land use across the country in 2010, involving 27,866 hectares of land including 10,933 hectares of farmland (China Daily January 21, 2011). Rampant illegal land expropriation has prompted the Ministry of Land and Resources and the National Development and Reform Commission to promulgate two catalogues in 2006, which banned the construction of large commercial and entertainment facilities, building material markets, and theme parks using arable land.

China’s economic growth has been driven by heavy investment in infrastructural and real estate development. Since investment requires land, China witnessed three “land enclosure rushes” (quandire). The first was during mid 1980s when cities expanded, town and township enterprises mushroomed and peasants started to build new houses. In 1985 alone China lost some 15 million mu (one mu equals 1/15 of a hectare) arable land. From 1978 to 1986, arable land in China shrank by 6 million mu per year. The second ‘land enclosure rush’ was witnessed between 1992 and 1993 in the form of land speculation. Haikou in Hainan and Beihai in Guangxi are the examples where huge arable land was seized for constructing commercial houses (shangpin fang). The third land enclosures took place between 2002 and 2004 when the government invited and sold land to developers at a very low price. Between 1998 and 2005 China lost around 10 million hectares of arable land. The fourth appears to be driven by government’s resolve to convert rural population into non rural by building ‘mini cities’ in the rural areas.

It is widely believed by many Chinese scholars that the reform of rural land management is the crux to resolve the “Three rural” (widely used for agriculture, countryside and peasants) problems. Since land does not belong to the peasants, they do not have bargaining rights in the course of land acquisition by central or local governments. As a result peasants only get a part of the added value of land; the lion’s share is taken away by the government and the market intermediaries. Liu, Jihong from the Department of Agricultural Economic Management, of MOA is more vocal in his approach when he says that the land acquisition system is highly discriminatory against farmers. According to Liu, ever since the economic reforms started, some 100 million mu of land was used for urbanization and industrialization. Even if there exists a profit margin of 20000 RMB per mu, the amount reaches a whopping 200 billion RMB. In the process millions of Chinese peasants lost their land through naked exploitation and in violation of peasants’ rights. Pointing to land acquired for construction, Liu points out that at present some 2.5 million to 3 million mu of agricultural land is used for construction every year. Even if we calculate an average per capita loss of 1 mu, some 2.5 million to 3 million peasants are rendered landless every year. Adding peasants who lost their land during the last 20 years or so, it is estimated that in coming 30 years some 100 million peasants would be turned into non agricultural population. With a note of warning, Liu posits that if these people are not rehabilitated properly, millions would be reduced to poverty and social stability would be endangered. Therefore, Liu advocates that as long as permanent land rights are denied to peasants more and more peasants would be rendered landless and homeless, and would cause instability in society.

In the light of these facts, the present HRS is not conducive to stabilization of land rights as well as deals negotiated by the market forces. Therefore, from a long term point of view China needs a second land revolution.

(B R Deepak is professor of Chinese and the Dean of School of Languages, Doon University, Dehradun India, he could be reached at [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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