Southern Metropolis: Executive Researcher Chen Xiwen Criticizes Rural Land Trading Approach

Trading in Building Land

Trading building land in for a house – or a flat (宅基地换房) – comes across as consolidation of farming, and a step towards the official goal of urbanizing China. In 2009, China Youth described the procedure as follows, using a pilot project near Tianjin as an example:

According to Tianjin development and reform commission’s prescribed terminology, trading in building land happens within a national framework which upholds the contract responsibility system without changes, without reducing arable land, by respecting the principle of voluntariness among the farmers, by farmers trading in their place in the village, in order to obtain a place to live in a small town in accordance with the exchange standards regulations. Then their former [village] homesteads, in a comprehensive, concerted approach, are recovered as arable land.

The project near Tianjin led to disagreements between farmers and the authorities, according to China Youth – they quoted a farmer who had expected to get the same square meter amount in town, as he used to have in his rural place. The standard regulations, however, only seemed to take the actual rooms of his old place into consideration, but not the courtyard’s square meters.

The Bigger Picture

But troubles like the one described above are part of everyday life in rural China, and attention for peasants – who have traditionally been second-class citizens anyway – may dimiish further, as the share of Chinese population who live in the countryside keeps declining.

So far, China’s hukou system basically remains in place. All the same, the central government wants urbanization, and rural migration into small towns (which in themselves would still count as rather rural) is to some extent encouraged. However, this doesn’t apply when it comes to rural migration into the big cities.

Reformers were disappointed when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who has made fairness and reducing income disparities a hallmark of his administration, called for relaxing the hukou requirements only in small and medium cities in his work report this month [i. e. March 2011]

Reuters reported last year, during the previous Two Sessions – the “Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference” (CPPCC) and the “National People’s Congress” (NPC).

That said, migration from (rural) villages to (rural) towns can lead to urbanization, too, even if only at a rather slow pace. A rural town has the legal or political potential to become urban by economic and social development, i. e. by a growing degree of industrialization, and with the primary sector’s role decreasing. As described in a paper by Anthony G. O. Yeh (Department of Urban Planning and Design, The University of Hong Kong) and Jiang Xu (Department of Geography and Resource Management, The Chinese University of Hong Kong), in a draft paper presented at a ‘IIED‐UNFPA Research on Population and Urbanization Issues’ meeting in London, September 9 & 10, 2009, a rural place’s status can change into urban, if it develops in accordance with criteria defined by the State Council*).

When it comes to Trading in Building Land for a Place in Town, differences between farmers and the authorities concerning the terms of a deal aren’t the only problem. Probably with lots of macro-economic issues on his mind, CPPCC delegate and central executive office on rural policy director Chen Xiwen (陈锡文) – on the current CPPCC session – called for deepening land reform, in order to narrow a gap between urban and rural areas which had been created by hastened expropriations (征地冲动). According to Southern Metropolis Online (南方都市报网站), he also

unequivocally opposed the Trading in Land for a Place in Town approach, believing that such measures harmed the farmers’ right of property.

Protection of arable land should not relax, he warned. While urbanization may be cautiously encouraged (see the Reuters quote further above), “food security”, i. e. self-sufficiency when it comes to grain supplies, for example, is on Chen’s mind.

Lekker op de trekker

The countryside, not that young anymore

If older farmers (and the countryside is reportedly aging fast) prefer farming close to their homes, and if they tend to abandon more distant arable land, as a research paper published by Guangming Daily (光明日报) in December last year suggested, moving to towns – even rural ones – does nothing to get them closer to the abandoned land again, and even more extensive use of arable land than up to now would be the consequence.

But obviously, not all factions within China’s bureaucracy are as focused on agriculture as is Chen’s office.



*) see footnote 1) underneath that post.



» Chen Xiwen bio, China Vitae
» More Martyrs, more Permanent Residents, Dec 31, 2009
» China’s Next Revolution, Economist, March 8, 2007



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