Struggle for the Land: Law and Property in Rural China

Jerome Cohen of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute.
Jerome Cohen of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute.

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.