Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Land and the Invisible Boot

You've probably heard about Adam Smith's "invisible hand," the mysterious working of the market mechanism to allocate resources with nobody really in charge. In rural China the market mechanism is supplemented by what one experienced China hand has called "the invisible boot," a behind-the-scenes kick in the pants to get peasants to toe the party line. In today's market economy Chinese officials cling to many of the old-school tactics of pressure, rewards, punishment, threats, and cajoling to accomplish policy objectives. This is most evident in policies involving land. Nominally, land is collectively owned by village families, but de facto ownership of land is in the hands of officials. With the "invisible hand" handcuffed in land use decisions, Chinese officials jump in with their "invisible boot" swinging to make sure land is used as they see fit.

In recent years Chinese officials have been complaining about the increasing frequency of abandoned farmland. As wages go up and migrants leave villages many families are leaving their land idle or abandoned. A township official in Hunan posted his experience in addressing the problem of abandoned farmland in his district. His article was posted last month on a web site for communist party officials to give other officials suggestions on how to handle the problem. The article opens a window on how Chinese officialdom uses the invisible boot to achieve desired results.

This district of Hunan Province has about 9700 acres of cultivatable land, 68 administrative villages and a population of 90,000, of whom roughly 20% have left to work elsewhere. The official says they managed to reduce the amount of abandoned land to 48.5 mu, less than 8 acres.

The township required local officials to sign an "abandonded land responsibility" agreement. Officials will be subject to disciplinary action if there are patches of abandoned land of 3 mu or more. Township officials make regular inspection visits to villages to check up on the abandoned land situation and "make suggestions."

Village families can get awards as "10-star civilized households" and "five-good" families. Families living in an "agricultural protection district" can't get this rating if they leave land idle or build a house, factory, grave, or fish pond on land designated for crops.

Another strategy is to hold old-school communist study sessions. They spread "land propaganda" through a June 25 "land day," radio broadcasts, and "propaganda vehicle tours." The officials organized "study days," law/regulation forums, and rounded up officials, government workers and rural cadres to study documents, laws and regulations on abandoned land.

Officials convince farmers who don't want to cultivate their land to sub-lease their land to someone else. Families that abandon their land are assessed "rehabilitation fees" and induced to let others cultivate their land for them. Migrants who work elsewhere are encouraged to give up their land rights (no mention of compensation) so it can be allocated to someone else. Villages are expected to broker land transfers to consolidate land into large plots that could be farmed by big farmers or companies.

They make sure subsidy funds are passed down to farmers. Households who have left their land idle for several years have their subsidies canceled. Officials adhere to the principle of "whoever plants gets subsidies" which apparently means the subsidy goes to the renter, not to the "owner."

Agricultural officials deliver inputs to families to encourage them to plant crops on their land. In rice paddies where the irrigation infrastructure was broken down, officials either gave funds to repair equipment or encouraged families to transfer their land to someone who could grow dryland crops on the paddy land.

Old people and other families who don't have enough workers are encouraged to plant flowers or fruit trees that don't require much labor. Each village was told to organize labor-aid teams during the peak planting and harvest periods to help families who lack labor to do their farm work.

Finally, the officials strictly enforce the land use plan to prevent unauthorized construction on farmland. Land that has been set aside for a project but still had no construction underway after a year is assessed an idle land fee of 6-to-10 yuan per square meter.

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