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Version française de cette page : Session 1: CHINE. Présentation de la situation et défis majeurs des prochaines décennies

Session 1. CHINA : Presentation of the situation and the greatest challenges for the coming decades

Report of proceedings. Workshop WT54. China-Europe Forum 2007

Date de rédaction : février 2008

Organismes : Forum Chine Europe, Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme (FPH), Renmin University of China - 中國人民大學

Type de document : Article / document de vulgarisation

Presentation of the situation in China:

The land tenure system in China differs greatly from the European system. In China, land is divided into two distinct categories:

  • Urban land is owned by the State, but can also be placed on the market and can therefore be traded as a commodity. Urban land is defined as all building land or lands designated in urban plans.

  • Rural land is used for production purposes, and is either state owned or collectively owned by villagers. The collectively owned rural land is allocated to individual farmers, to which the farmers have the use right for inhabitation and cultivation but can not sell it out or turn it to other uses. The state owned rural land can also be allocated to villages or individual farmers for agricultural uses. If the governments turn the land to other uses, they pay some compensation to the farmers or villages. The farmers hold titles to use their land for 20-50 years. Such a title is called a leased use right with no change, which grants the right to inhabit or to cultivate, either as a family or as an individual. This title is inheritable, but cannot be sold or put up for mortgage.

One of the biggest issues in China today is related to the processes of urbanization and industrialization that are rapidly occurring on Chinese territory. Cities grow and are spreading onto formerly rural lands. Nonetheless, there is a large difference in the prices of rural and urban real estate. Indeed, urban real estate has a comparatively much higher value. In addition, it can be purchased from the government though sale by auction, calls for tender, or otherwise. As far as public land goes (expressways, public buildings, etc.), it can be obtained from the authorities by means of a procedure called requisitioning.

Urban sprawl thus creates huge lucrative interests. One of contemporary China’s biggest challenges is to regulate its’ cities’ ferocious appetites in order to protect farmers’ rights and interests. This challenge is all the more difficult since public interests are extremely strong: it is especially difficult to ensure equal protection of all the interests involved in the process of urbanization.

Certainly it can be difficult to estimate the capital gain generated by the process of urbanization since there is no rural real estate market. However, the value of rural land can be estimated by a variety of means. For example, the value of the crops grown on it or the real estate value of the buildings located on it can be a start. Even in the absence of a rural real estate market, the value of the land can thereby be determined.

Today, Chinese society needs to come up with some solutions to the problems caused by urbanization: should the earnings due to the process of urbanization go to the government or to the farmers and their village communities? The law had foreseen the need to compensate the farmers needing to leave their land as a result of the urban sprawl movement. Such compensations can get to be as much as 30 times a farmer’s annual income. Today, the government and the village communities are negotiating how to divide up this gain.

Moreover, when a city decides to expand its urban territory, preparatory committees meet to work on matters of different interest in real estate. These committees are composed of representatives from both the farming and the urban communities. Together, the representatives come up with a requisition price of the land. Once two-thirds of the rural representatives accept this price, the land is ready to be requisitioned, and it is transformed into the property of the urban community and can be placed on the market.

In order to nuance the idea that the weak Chinese countryside is up against almighty cities, it is useful to recall that 80% of arable land is protected by specific agencies and cannot be requisitioned without the authorization of the central government. Four agencies are directly in charge of soils and arable land issues: The Ministry of Agriculture (and specifically the Office for the Protection of Ecology and Arable Land), the Ministry of Territory, the General Administration of Environmental Protection, and the General Administration of Forestry Protection.

The State has strict control over the protected zones, but given the increase in production, we must admit that soil quality is diminishing. Also, the quality criterion is not the only one to take into consideration when determining the value of arable land. Today, we vale the soil in terms of its level of pollution, for instance. Even though all of the institutions mentioned above have offices specialized on land quality management and ecological surveillance, it is most often during the implementation of projects that these things are controlled, and not as a result of formal policies.

In any event, today’s China has experienced a significant loss in cultivated land. The country’s food security is thus endangered. Massive urbanization and industrialization are not the only causes of this phenomenon. It has also been noticed that the vocation for farming is less and less present in rural areas. Farmers are less and less motivated to cultivate their land, in large part because their activity is no longer profitable. In fact, the urban population’s wealth is growing much faster than the rural population’s wealth.

The Chinese government does not consider enough the multi functional natures of farming and of the farmer. When we speak about land, we are not only speaking about a usable resource, but also a habitat and a rural ecological environment. How can the multiple functions of farmland and rural land be put to use? Developing rural tourism, which would allow farmers to increase their revenues, might be the way to a solution. Yet farmers must also be allowed to keep on playing the key role that they play in the traditional Chinese understanding of agriculture.

Sustainable land use methods and management techniques exist in the Chinese farming traditions. However, technological innovations and the imposition of the market system are preventing the farmers from practicing them. One of contemporary China’s greatest challenges is thus to privilege the comeback of traditional management methods, such as areas where fish are bred and rice is grown.

An interesting example to illustrate the present legal fuzziness within Chinese land policy is that of woodlands. Forests are divided into two large categories.

  • Public woodlands are government property. These lands are managed by the government at the district level through different agencies. Some of the woodlands are under specific protection, meaning that they are managed by particular agencies. Human access to these government lands is controlled: deforestation is not authorized, but the inhabitants can use these lands for non- forestry purposes (all but the use of wood is authorized) upon purchase of use rights. In China’s North and Northeast, 70% of lands are government property, while in the South, it’s 50%.

  • Forest commons refer mostly to the lands bordering farmlands. Use rights are held by the farmer, who can practice any activity on this land except commercial activities or deforestation. Nevertheless, if the farmers need to build a dwelling, they can request authorization from the district. The authorization is granted depending on the density of the forest at that point and on the wood needed to build the house. If he is granted permission, the farmer can cut down previously selected trees under the surveillance of a team sent by the government. There are individual or family-based leased use rights with no changes that permit tree- planting, but cutting down trees is prohibited.

Grasslands remained public property until the 1980s, when they were regulated under use rights with no changes. Winter pastures are under a contract regime, whereas summer pastures are still controlled by a State property system without contracts. The Chinese government hopes to promote the sedentary settlement of herders, notably during the winter, and for this reason they grant land to herders to settle with their families. The two statuses of summer and winter pastures often create a situation of legal fuzziness for the herders. The land for settling the herders can sometimes be requisitioned.

Moreover, since 2003, the Chinese government hopes to restrict the amount of pastureland: the State handed over financial compensations to herders in exchange for giving up their land.

Thus, there is a great contradiction: protected areas were created in the great grasslands of the West, some of which had been before under lease. Today, herding activities are illegal on these lands.

Restricting herding activities is actually another will of the Chinese State. Quotas are being assigned to lands. If the quota is surpassed, the herder must pay a fine, while if he reduces his herd, he will be granted financial compensation.

If the grasslands are reconverted to accommodate other purposes (industrial ones for example), it is necessary to obtain a permit from the State, but there is not yet a law that sets up the framework for such a transformation. Here again, there is a great deal of legal fuzziness.

Questions from the European participants concerning the Chinese situation:

  • What is the relationship between the law and what is done in reality? Is the price of rural real estate defined only once a plot becomes subject to urban law, or does a price exist beforehand, as calculated according to other mechanisms, even if they might be illegal?

  • Are there any farmers that are “growing” (that is, farmers who have more land than others, for instance) even if rural land is collective, or if the system is strictly egalitarian? Given the present state of affairs, could the situation change?

  • Farmers no longer wish to be farmers. There is an agricultural crisis, and a crisis in the farmers’ incomes. What do the global agricultural policies have to do with this? Is the rural exodus predetermined by the much higher incomes to be earned in the cities?

  • What methods are being followed for reviving traditional forms of Chinese agriculture that favor sustainable development?

  • In 2005, there were 84,000 incidents or protests revolving around the questions of land distribution. In China, inequalities are increasing. To what extent is the wealth recently created in China a result of industry growth? To what extent has it been created by systems of corruption, speculation, etc? Does this wealth go more to the benefit of the State or more to the individuals who succeed in capturing it?

  • Do you think that increasing farm sizes is really necessary in order to ensure food security and promote the modernization of agriculture?

  • Property is either State property or communal property. In China, the concept of property thus needs to be enlarged in terms of its uses. “Property” in the Chinese sense therefore includes the notion of service. Does this system last? Could it change?

  • One of the current functions of the agricultural sector in China is to produce cheap labor for industry and urban activities. Doesn’t this phenomenon come to contradict the necessity to ensure food security?

  • What is the real nature of the rights of traditional communities? For example, nomadic peoples’ rights must be traditionally different from the rights of farming communities. While taking into consideration the diversity of traditional arrangements and setting up equitable norms for everyone how could these traditional rights be made to evolve?

  • In the prospective studies currently carried out by the Chinese authorities, what are the estimations on the number of farmers who are going to abandon agriculture over the next generation?

  • Can arable lands become grasslands, and can grasslands become forests, etc.? How?

  • Are there any possibilities to transfer the lease contracts within a family, or within a rural community?

  • The State owns all the land, and thus holds the key to the first step in urbanization: does the government set certain urban objectives? In regards to this question, what does the concept of “The State” mean in China? Are there any dissensions between the Ministries, or between the central government and the provincial governments?

  • Farm income diversification policies, such as those that promote rural tourism, can end up being very dangerous or could even result in the destruction of rural areas. Are there any cultural protection programs that ensure the sustainability of such policies?

  • What traditional, sustainable methods could be called upon to feed the Chinese megalopolises? Which strategies are there for saving food security when farmers earn three times less than anyone working in the city?

  • The concept of a harmonious society, as developed in China, is related to the concept of sustainable development, except that it includes an aim of peace. While aiming for a harmonious society, how do you see the organization of power between local authorities and the central authorities? Are there differences in interests that make it so that local authorities prevent profitable, sustainable development?

  • The industrialization of the countryside is extolled by the Chinese government: is there anything that could join up with the idea of the farmer’s multifunctionality?

  • You have not mentioned the obligatory registration of farmers in their places of residence, the hukou, which must be done in order to exercise the right to an education and the right to health services. What role does this play in the phenomena of workers migrating from the countryside to the city?