Two of the major themes at this year’s “Two Conferences” or Lianghui, a.k.a. the NPC and CPPCC, have been continuing to continue building the countryside and to legislate property rights. Those not paying attention might assume that this extension of property rights would be part of the effort to help those unfortunate enough to be born in China’s rural areas (where, as noted here previously, the majority of Chinese are in fact born). However, that would be wrong. The devil, as always, is in the details.
From the Financial Times (subscription probably required):
The [property rights] bill also explicitly rejects any change to the system of “collective” ownership of rural land, where farmer occupiers have only usage rights over limited contract periods rather than any title that can be bought and sold.
This is a bit unfair, as contract periods in the countryside should be 30 years in duration by this point. However, the fact remains that land can be legally obtained by a local government based solely on its agricultural value and subsequently sold at its actual market value.
Land, as pointed out by Prof. Barry Naughton in his recent piece in the China Leadership Monitor, has been a point of center-local tension for decades. The center has been moving to increase its control of this vital resource. However, it has yet to reform the murky ‘collective’ ownership of land in the countryside. Why? Certainly local governments want to protect this extremely lucrative revenue stream, but urban local governments want to protect it as well and seem to have lost. So, the question remains: why? Because land remains the best social safety net that exists for China’s rural residents. Whether from an ideological or purely political calculation, the center is not willing to allow the privatization of land, the return of landlordism, and the creation of a class of urban migrants without any sort of safety net.