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Struggle for the Land: Law and Property in Rural China

Jerome Cohen of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute.
by Stephanie Valera
10 April 2009

NEW YORK, April 10, 2009 – Although China has codified a robust
framework for the protection of land rights, knowledge and practical
implementation of these rights still lag in rural areas, says a 2008
joint survey by the Rural Development Institute (RDI), Michigan State
University, and Beijing's Renmin University. Further top-down changes
to legal and political structures will not solve China's continued
struggles with unrest resulting from the summary appropriation of land
by developers and local officials. Instead, further grassroots efforts
are needed to empower farmers with knowledge of their rights and the
recourses available to them.

Roy Prosterman and Zhu Keliang of the Rural Development Institute were joined at Asia Society by Michigan State's Jeffrey Riedinger
to discuss the survey's findings and the work that still needs to be
done. The survey, conducted in more that 1600 villages across China's
rural areas, found that about 40% of rural households still lacked any
physical documentation of their contractual rights and nearly a third
were still unaware that the Chinese government had enacted explicit
legal protections for farmers' 30-year land use rights in 2002. Farmers
in many areas are still being forced to relocate by local officials,
often illegally, and local cadres still retain large amounts of money
intended to be distributed to farmers as compensation for any
public-interest land seizures.

Despite these
findings, the survey points to some bright spots in China's rural
development. The number of yearly land readjustments (the forced
reallocation of land) has been diminishing and increasing long-term
investment in the land indicates growing confidence by rural Chinese in
their property rights. Although the next logical step—an increase in
the number of rural land transfers or sublets—has yet to occur, the
changing makeup of existing land transfers is also a cause for
optimism. Farmers are now much more likely to transfer land to buyers
outside their village or family networks, indicating a growth in
confidence that 30-year-use contracts are secure.

Much remains to be done, however, if China is to continue to grow
its economy and raise more of its 750 million rural citizens out of
poverty. RDI makes six concrete recommendations: renewal of farmers'
30-year rights must be made automatic, land readjustments must cease,
the government must publicize legal rights and increase education
initiatives, the government must make a widespread effort to get
physical documentation of land use contracts to all farmers, land
takings must be better compensated and strictly limited to public
interest projects, and the rights of women to the land must be
documented and enforced.

The panelists cautioned that, as with many issues in China, local
corruption, the inaccessibility of rural areas, and the sheer number of
people affected stand in the way of successful implementation of these
recommendations. The potential contribution land reform could make to
China's continued economic growth and stability, however, will make it
central to Chinese politics for decades to come. In the current
financial climate, the potential benefits of adding millions of new
consumers to the world market make it of primary importance for foreign
business interests as well.

But land reform is just one specific aspect of a larger problem
China has still to address: what role will China's rural courts play
going forward? Does the central government have faith in the courts'
competence, and how much power will they be allowed to wield in the
future? The resolution of these questions is central to the improvement
of quality of life for China's rural citizens.