In January 2020, China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs published new regulations on the transfer of rural land operation rights that take effect March 1. The regulations are the latest in a series of decrees and notices attempting to meld socialism and capitalism in the Chinese countryside by creating a market for rights to use land while retaining an opaque form of collective ownership of the land. A close reading of the regulations and the problems they are aimed at suggests that the farm scaling-up process is not going smoothly. This "reform" piles on more layers of audits and approvals to address the worries of Chinese leaders obsessed with "risks" to "food security" and rural stability.
Chinese officials are alarmed by the phenomenon of abandoned weed-covered plots of rural land. A Peoples Daily explanation of the regulations leads off with headings "Enliven [land] use rights" and "More effectively and rationally utilize land resources." This blog previously has reported on the abandonment of farmland.
A videoconference on utilization of abandoned land held by the Ministry of Ag last month warned provincial officials that "we must resolutely curb the abandonment of cultivated land" to maintain national food security. Local officials were ordered to assess their local land-abandonment situation and draw up plans to ensure that cropland in their province/prefecture/county/town/village is fully utilized. The land utilization campaign is not unrelated to the land transfer initiative. The first task given officials in the videoconference was to "standardize/regulate" (规范) land transfer systems (other measures included subsidies to motivate farmers, spending on land improvements and infrastructure, better agricultural services, and propaganda).
The land regulations taking effect next month are focused on mechanisms to transfer land use rights to commercial enterprises, "family farms," cooperatives, and trusts through rentals, long-term leases and reassignments--without selling the ownership of the land. Propaganda articles explain the necessity of the strategy by giving examples of poor villages where weed-covered plots of wasteland were consolidated and rented out to large-scale farmers to grow wheat and medicinal crops, with profits paid out to villagers as dividends and wages.
In addition to the burden on businesses, every local government will have to set up teams to audit, supervise and keep records on land transfer projects. How will such auditing teams be staffed? Persons with accounting and financial skills are scarce in the countryside and lack of such personnel is one of the chief bottlenecks for China's farmer cooperatives. These committees and record systems will be set up in a flurry of activity and then quickly fall into dormancy and atrophy.