China has lots of people and not much land. That means land is scarce and expensive. Can markets be trusted to allocate land and assign values to it? On one hand, China is busy setting up all kinds of markets to trade land and assets and assign market values, but there remains a lingering distrust of market solutions for land.
A Farmers Daily article describing "farmer cultivated land protection associations" recently posted on many official websites appears to be part of a campaign to slow down the loss of farmland to urbanization. Jintan, a prefecture in Jiangsu Province, set up a network of committees in each of the 157 administrative villages in the prefecture. The article describes the associations as putting farmers in charge of enforcing the government's land regulations. Farmers are described as the "first guardians of the land." The city has been labeled as a model city for protecting land and delegations of rural officials are trooping in to Jintan to learn how to protect land.
The associations seem to function as a sort of police force of old people who keep an eye on the village's land to make sure no land is illegally converted to nonfarm uses. Each "association" is composed of 32 elderly communist party members, teachers, retired government officials and elderly residents of the area. The association has a land protection inspection group that conducts monthly inspections of the whole village to make sure nobody has misused their land. Land policy propaganda groups hold a monthly meeting to study and discuss the importance and necessity of protecting land.
Last August, 50-year-old farmer Chen Youcai--a party member and head of a village group--learned that a merchant was investing in a poultry purchasing station in the village. Although the project was set to bring compensation of 600,000 yuan to villagers, Chen was so troubled he couldn't sleep because this would occupy 20 mu of farmland. Early the next day, he went out before breakfast to find the village and town leaders and land management departments to get the project shut down. Zhili Village communist party secretary Yuan Fangqing said, “Although we may lose the quick money, we will preserve the land for our grandchildren and descendents.”
Jintan City land resources bureau chief Huang Kehong said, “Farmer land protection associations make farmers the first guardians of the land...building a strong fortress to protect cultivated land.”