Chinese rural ire grows with land grabs: survey

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 07, 2012 3:14 AM
Chinese rural ire grows with land grabs: survey

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - More than half of Chinese farmers are unsatisfied with rural policies, according to a survey published on Tuesday that showed rising cases of agricultural land seizures by the state and a trend towards bigger farms as millions leave villages for work in cities.

Premier Wen Jiabao said at the weekend that China's government failed to give farmers enough protection from land confiscation for what many of them see as paltry compensation.

The survey of 1,791 farmers overseen by the Landesa Rural Development Institute, based in Seattle, gave statistical flesh to the extent of complaints over losses of land to commercial development, an issue that triggered a dramatic ten-day confrontation in Wukan Village in Guangdong province last year.

"It is, therefore, not surprising that dissatisfied farmers outnumber the satisfied by a margin of two to one," said a summary of the survey, which found 36.7 percent of respondents said they were "dissatisfied" and 16.7 percent said they were "very dissatisfied." The summary was emailed to Reuters.

By contrast, 2.8 percent of respondents said they were "very satisfied."

"To make an enduring dent in tenure insecurity and to improve welfare for its 700 million rural people, China must consider carrying out fundamental reforms of the tenure system and strict enforcement on the ground," the Landesa researchers said in their summary.

Wen has said that he too wants stricter protection of farmland and more compensation for land seizures, but the Communist Party government has also said it will keep to its system of collectively-owned land.

"What is the widespread problem now? It's the arbitrary seizure of farmers' fields, and the farmers have complaints about this, and it's even sparking mass incidents," Wen said in Guangdong on Saturday, according to a Xinhua news agency report.

"Mass incidents" is the official euphemism for protests, riots and mass petitions.

Farmers in China do not directly own most of their fields. Instead, most rural land is owned collectively by a village, and farmers receive leases that last for decades.

In theory, the villagers can collectively decide whether to apply to sell off or develop land. In practice, however, state officials usually decide. And hoping to win investment, revenues and pay-offs, they often override the wishes of farmers.

The Landesa survey, done across 17 provinces in mid-2011, found 43.1 of villages had experienced "takings of land" for non-farming uses since the late 1990s, and an accompanying graph showed that such takings rose dramatically from 2007.

Villagers "received some compensation in 77.5 percent of all cases as promised but did not receive compensation in 9.8 percent of cases, and were neither promised, nor received compensation in 12.7 percent of cases," said the survey summary.

Local governments across China have pushed increasingly bold reforms to merge patchwork fields and settlements into larger farm tracts and villages, with aggregated fields rented to investor-villagers or companies.

That trend has been reinforced by the growing numbers of residents leaving villages to find long-term work, although most of them say they want to keep their land. China has about 153 million migrant workers living outside their hometowns.

The survey found 17.7 percent of villages have conducted out such land consolidation plans or are doing so, and 57.2 percent of the villagers affected were left without any farmland.

"The overall picture here is troubling, because this new urbanization program was started in an attempt to preserve and reclaim some of the country's farmland," said the summary.

"Instead, only a small percentage of the vacated residential land - and a minority of even the vacated farmland - is being used for agricultural purposes."

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ed Lane)