Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Five-Year Plan Boosts Illegal Land Use

China's new 5-year plan has set off a development frenzy and rural land is being gobbled up at an accelerated record pace. On July 12, the Ministry of Land Resources held a press conference which conveyed the impression that the Ministry is helpless against a swelling tide of land grabs for city expansion, road-building, and mining.

A Ministry of Land Resources official said the Ministry's enforcement is in a generally good direction, but the demand for land is intensifying and there is a resurgence of pressure to violate land laws and regulations. There have been 30,000 incidents of illegal land use covering 278,000 mu of land in the first half of 2011. The number of incidents is up 8% this year and the amount of land is up 15%. [And these are presumably just the ones they have caught.]

Here are the observations of the Ministry regarding land pressure:

1. There has been a clear rebound in illegal land use, especially in the western provinces where illegal land use is up 50% this year.
2. Illegal land use has been boosted as cities have attracted large amounts of commercial investment.
3. Construction of road, rail, airport, and water projects has been increasing.
4. As cities and the countryside are integrated, illegal rentals and expropriations of rural collective land for illegal real estate projects, golf courses, houses and industrial parks are becoming common. People feel "planting crops can't compare with planting houses" on rural land.
5. Illegal mining projects are scattered all over.

The Ministry of Land Resources official said that implementation of this year's announcement of the 12th five-year plan has set off a chase for land. Many cities are building new urban districts and infrastructure. It's not easy for the Ministry to enforce land regulations and laws.

The Ministry promises to persist in strict regulation, preserving the "reasonable" use of land, enacting a new enforcement system and having "courage to tackle tough problems." They now rely on satellite photos to control illegal mining.

The roots of this mess lie in the 19th century when socialists decided that collective or state ownership of land is much nicer and fairer than private ownership and voluntary exchange of land. China's collective ownership was OK when land was not worth anything. But now that land is valuable and it's not clear who owns it, there is a chaotic land grab. Those with the most power get the land and the profits. Local governments' strategy of building something on a parcel of land, then asking permission later works pretty well. The National Ministry--far from the land--has little power of enforcement over local land deals.

Collective land ownership is supposed to protect farmers from the pre-"liberation" domination of landlords over tenants, but that was largely a fiction. John Lossing Buck's extensive Chinese land surveys in the 1930s (Land Utilization in China) found that, in most places, farmers owned their land. A 1945 book, A Chinese Village (Taitou, Shantung Province), by Martin C. Yang, emphasized that land-holdings of families were constantly in flux, rising and falling in multi-generational cycles.

Today's collective land ownership system has locked most Chinese farmers into small land-holdings that could disappear at any time with compensation only a fraction of the market value.

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