chapter  7
26 Pages

Peasants’ struggle for land in China


Tens of millions of Chinese peasants have been affected by the loss of their land in the past two decades (Gilboy and Heginbotham 2004: 258; Forbes News Agency 2006; Radio Free Asia 21 March 2007; China Daily 23 January 2008). This has given rise to many disputes, often culminating in physical resistance to land takings and evictions (Radio Free Asia 17 October 2007). Wrongful takings have been among the factors preventing the development of a sound law on land tenure and property rights. If these disputes are not handled well, the resulting protests may ultimately lead to major social and political upheaval. The principal cause of land grabbing is China’s rapid urbanization, esti-

mated to see the migration of hundreds of millions more people into urban areas within the next few decades, perhaps 850 million in the next 25 years (Jiang 2006). In 2006, almost 770 square kilometers of land were being built on annually, a figure that was increasing by almost 6% annually (Jiang 2006). While this process sometimes involves unnecessary or irrational construction, for instance in cases in which construction projects are ill-executed, wasteful of natural resources or environmentally harmful (Jiang 2006), urbanization itself is unstoppable. Nor is it necessarily bad for peasants. But many peasant grievances result from the wrongs done in the context of the takings processes. Peasants are denied equal legal status with urban residents. Their individual legal rights in the land are weak, and there are virtually no legal protections against the government taking the land “in the public interest” from the larger collectives to which the peasants belong. In many cases, peasants fail to get the compensation due to them, and in other cases, the government’s interpretation of what is due according to current law is far less than they ought to get. Viewed as a group, peasants are denied equal opportunities to participate in a growing Chinese market economy, and they are also denied equal access to public services. Yet much economic growth could not have happened without trade in, and use of, what was once rural land and the basis of their livelihood. Many rural citizens feel victimized and aggrieved, because they do not want to

give up their land, or because they want a share in the profits from property development and urbanization. There are reports suggesting that increasingly, peasants express a sense of ownership in the land, which is only imperfectly reflected in the current law. This paper provides a brief overview of China’s land rights and land tenure

system, and of the legal status of its peasants today. It describes how expropriations happen in rural China, and avenues of redress and forms of protest and resistance chosen by the peasants in such cases. Various attempts to circumvent restraining legal rules and allow for an “informal” acquisition of property directly from peasant communities are discussed later. The last part addresses instances of open defiance of legal rules that disadvantage peasants.

The legal status of landholdings in China