A news report about a 5-class system in a village in Inner Mongolia crystallized some of the fundamental strains placed on China’s anachronistic rural land system.
According to the December 1 news report, Yinliuyao village, on the outskirts of Baotou City, has divided families in the village into five classes according to the year the family moved to the village. The first class includes those who settled in the village before 1963. The second class is those who settled there during 1963-75, third class 1976-85, fourth class 1986-96, and fifth class includes those who arrived after 1996.
The classes reflect waves of migration to the village. Some earlier migrants were resettled when their villages were flooded by new reservoirs. More recent arrivals came seeking urban jobs. Apparently, new arrivals were allocated shares of the village collective’s land, so they are entitled to compensation when village land is sold off.
The village, being on the outskirts of the city, has had its land gobbled up by developers (16 apartment buildings were recently completed). Older residents feel a sense of entitlement and don’t want to share payments fully with their newer neighbors. More recent arrivals (those with a lower class) receive less compensation when the village’s land is sold to developers. Class 1 families get 100% of the per-household compensation payment, class 2 get 85%, and so on, until the class 5 families get nothing. Note that fifth-class people could have lived in the village for as long as 14 years.
A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says he has never heard of this system. In most Chinese villages, compensation to a family is based on the amount of land contracted to them or the number of people in the household.
The class status in Yinliuyao village is inherited by children, so being a “first class” family is a valuable status. According to the article, young people seeking a spouse look for someone with “first class” status. A “first class” woman would never marry a second- or third-class groom.
The article attracted outrage from Chinese netizens. Dividing citizens into classes and allowing inheritance of class status smacks of “feudalism” and “imperial” exploitation for many who left comments on electronic bulletin boards.
The Baotou press office put out a semi-coherent rebuttal, claiming that the reporter misunderstands Chinese land policy. Interestingly, the Baotou rebuttal says not to blame their officials; if you want to place blame somewhere, blame the country’s land policy. Farmers get contract rights to farmland for 30 or 50 years, and the rights can be passed on to children. Baotou officials and academics say the situation is different in each locality. They argue that there are fundamental conflicts between various laws covering rural land, contracting, and village governance. It is especially difficult to tie land to families in areas where a lot of people are moving in and out. Baotou officials say this kind of class system is common in their region.
The class system has survived through the democratic process. The “first class” families are in the majority, so voting has upheld the system.
The “class system” reflects the increasing value of agricultural land and the movement of people. China set up its “household responsibility system” in the 1970s when no one could conceive of land as a tradable asset and villagers were locked into the villages they had inhabited for generations. Three decades later, land is a valuable asset and people are moving in and out, putting pressure on an anachronistic system.
In a market economy, valuable assets like land are traded through exchange. With no market for land and unclear property rights, conflicts inevitably arise over allocation of valuable assets. The right to perform the allocation itself becomes a valuable right, providing all sorts of incentives for corruption and nepotism.
The comments left on electronic bulletin boards regarding the “class system” reflect the cynicism of Chinese netizens:
“Not to speak of a single village, the whole country is separated into [classes]”
“Corrupt to the core”
“Are outsiders and Beijing natives the same? The capital city is like this, so it’s not at all strange that the countryside should be the same.”
“The people are the cheapest, so divide them into classes as you see fit”
“Baotou is chaotic, the government is the same. Everything is just a pyramid scheme. But no one oversees it.”
“Eliminate the residence registration”
“Strictly speaking, this is a result of the land contract system.”
“Chinese people are in 3 classes, city, rural, 'black households'”
“First class people are public servants, what’s so strange?”
“Old hundred names is always the object of bullying”