Monday, May 17, 2010

This Land is My Land (Maybe)

In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie sang "This land is your land, this land is my land," which originally included a verse denigrating the concept of private property. Too bad he didn't live to see the kind of injusticies that occur when no one really owns the land, and you're at the mercy of the officials who have power to determine who gets it.

An article in the Youth Daily from April 2009 raised the issue of whether rural university students have rights to land in their villages. Suppose you want to go back to your village and take up farming. How do you get land? Suppose your family has some land that is now being sold to build a shopping mall, but you’re away at university. Are you entitled to the proceeds from selling the land?

A young university graduate from a county in Tianjin interviewed by the Youth Daily told of her predicament: “I am a university student from a rural area and I graduated last year. So far I haven’t found a suitable job... Unlike other rural migrants who can go back and do farming if they lose their jobs, I have nothing to fall back on.”

Another young person from Jining in Shandong is a third-year student and he still has “responsibility land” in his village. Recently, a reservoir was built on his land, but he didn’t receive any compensation. He said, “Hasn’t it been said that land will be unchanged for 30 years? Why don’t I get compensation when my land was occupied? Is it because my household registration was changed from my home village?”

These scenarios are probably still pretty uncommon, but they point out how the concept of property rights and land ownership are evolving in rural China as the economy matures. The government has moved to strengthen land rights, but unclear land ownership still leaves villagers at the mercy of village officials.

Rural land is collectively owned by each village and divided up among village members. But who’s a village member? From 1995 to 2003, when a student passed the entrance examination for a university, his/her household registration automatically was transferred to the school he/she attended. That meant he/she became a “nonagricultural” person. To get a share of land and hold onto it you have to be a village resident with an agricultural registration, so if your registration was changed (like the young man from Jining quoted above) you are in a legal limbo with regard to rights to land in your village.

In past years, a nonagricultural registration was a much sought-after commodity that entitled you to escape your village and become a city resident. Back then, land was a liability because you had to pay taxes on it. Now agricultural taxes have been eliminated and land has become an income-producing asset: you can collect rent and subsidies from it, get compensation if it’s sold for a real estate project, put it into a village cooperative and get dividends, or use it to grow your own food if times get hard.

The Youth Daily explains that since 2003 students have had the choice of moving their registration to their school or keeping it in their village. The article says students from poor areas typically changed their registration, but such students had no land to fall back on if they couldn’t find a job after graduation. In rich villages in southern China land can be valuable, so many students kept their village registration.

The law is unclear on how returned students should be treated with regard to land allocations. It’s up to local leaders to decide how to handle the issue. In many of the rich villages, rules are set up so graduates can continue receiving benefits from their home village even after getting a job in a private company. In other places the issue can lead to a lot of complications and disputes. In 2005, 20 rural university students from a village in Shandong went to court to claim a share of compensation payments for land. They won and the court awarded them compensation.

There are differing opinions given by officials quoted in the article. One official cites the policy of land use contracting rights being unchanged for 30 years and says students should not be deprived of their rights to village land. The Ministry of Agriculture espouses a principle of no change in land allocations due to increases or decreases in population, so officials are not supposed to take back land when a student leaves the village to study.

A researcher quoted in the article says encouraging students to work in the country side goes against the social trend of reducing rural population pressure and speeding up urbanization. He is skeptical: “How many college graduates will want to go back to the countryside to start a business venture? I’m not that optimistic.”

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