01/30/2012, 00.00
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Privatising land as the only path to save Chinese agriculture

by Wei Jingsheng
As China’s industry grows rapidly, its countryside stagnates and stays poor. The Communist Party, not farmers are to blame for the situation, as party officials use land to make huge profits whilst maintaining public ownership. Only if land is privatised can it become productive. Here is the analysis by one of China’s great dissidents.
Washington (AsiaNews) – In speaking of China's rural economic stagnation and widespread poverty among peasants, there will be some people who make excuses again. They will say that it is due to small production, low quality of the people, and shortage of land, etc. These excuses are all nonsense using truth to deceive. The favourite counter-example by these people is the United States: open fields, advanced technology including farmers with Ph.D.'s, etc. Indeed, these elements are all true.

But China also has broad land, and once the United States also depended on small-scale farming. Why doesn't China have large-scale operations? It is due to the land policy. The Chinese Communist Party has always insisted on its public ownership of land from its early days. Some people think that this insistence is due to ideological reasons. But why can almost all other things be privatized, except land? If we pay attention on the princelings who got rich by granting land and doing demolition, we have the answers.

That people hate these "princelings" so much is not due to ideology, but due to all kinds of unreasonable profits and atrocities incurred. The adult Chinese with more experience know that the Chinese people's traditional concepts are still influential, thus they would go with the concept that "the hero's sons are heroes", and the emperor's son shall be an emperor. So usually, the Chinese people have more tolerant attitudes toward the official's children becoming the new officials. However, when people's vital interests and security are violated, it is another matter.

Since the recent occurrence of the "my dad is Li Gang, the high local officer!" incident, people would beat these "sons" indiscriminately if someone made trouble yet yelled something like "my dad is so and so". This new mentality is the accumulation of numerous bullying cases that people suffered from these Princelings. From their daily lives, the second generation of Communist officials has realized that the government riches are their own private property. Thus, it is difficult for them not to be arrogant: "our parents usurped others' land and property, and we are only beating people on the streets and making other kinds of little troubles." To be treated by people violently makes them feel wronged, that they are being made the scapegoats for their parents.

The fact that China's land ownership is unclear has created the opportunity for corruptive officials to make quick profits from it. The side effect is that annexation of land are blocked and is always in small scale. There is very little income from the land. The young peasants naturally tend to give up farming and migrate to the cities to be workers. The probability to realize advanced technology on a small piece of land is also greatly reduced. Coupled with authoritarian corruption, the space for rural economic development is reduced, thus producing rural poverty.

So, to solve the bottleneck problem of rural economic development in China, the first thing that needs to be solved is the communist dictatorship at the grassroots level. Not only must we tackle corruption, more importantly we must liberate the peasants, and give them back the freedom they traditional had. The second important issue is to privatize land. Land privatization is not only conducive to the annexation of land for development of large-scale agriculture; in fact, even on small pieces of land, modern agriculture can be developed. The agriculture in Japan, Taiwan and Europe is carried out on small parcels of land with great efficiency.

However, regardless whether large-scale agriculture or small-scale agriculture with advanced technology is present, people's subjective attitude is vital, even the decisive factor. Whether in the United States or Europe and Japan, the reason for their good land management is that there are landowners.

Some people have a deep misunderstanding about large farms in the United States and think that it was due to land acquisition. It was not. Indeed, some farms and ranches are very large, at least large in their early pioneering days. However, as in ancient China, with the division during inheritance and sale, land parcels have been getting smaller. Except for some farmers who have the capacity of merging smaller plots, many farmers lease their land or hire people to farm it. This reconfiguration is similar to the ancient land system in China.

For example, my own land was vacant, so I leased it to my neighbor. My neighbor makes most of his income by working outside as clerk. He combined his land with his neighbors' land including mine and got other farmers to cultivate it. It's like the ancient Chinese landlords. The farmer who cultivates the parcels does not have very much land, but makes his income by cultivating this collectively larger parcel of land. In my eyes, my neighbor is kind of poor, while that farmer my neighbor hired seems much wealthier, with a confident look.

In this way comes the formation of a modern large-scale agriculture, with its efficiency far surpassing farming on small plots. The grains they harvested were sold cheap and often cannot get a good price; yet they have to ask others to buy their grains, or have to fallow. In the United States, we often see large tracts of farmland in long-term fallow. Land lies fallow in the U.S. because it is hard to sell the grain at a good price, while land lies fallow in China because its land ownership is unclear, even though there is not enough food for people's consumption.

The main reason for poor land management in China is due to land ownership being unclear. Nominally, it is state owned land, yet all levels of bureaucracy have some control over it. Especially the rural tyrants have the right to adjust the use of the land in any way at any time. Naturally, peasants do not have any incentive to invest in land. My land lease contract has written details about how to use and to maintain soil fertility, etc. That is because the land is my property, and landowners are used to being very careful to protect their property, which becomes a habit. Yet that seems a little odd for people from China.

Chinese peasants will not protect the land so much, because it is not their property. There is not much need to care if it does not belong to them. This is human nature. Meanwhile, the instability of land rights becomes an important source of authority for rural cadres -- adjusting the land rights now and then becomes their major source of income. In contrast, because of this instability, peasants' investment in the land will likely be only making benefit for others. Thus there is a general decline in soil fertility, and a lowering production. Land, this important property, is depreciated because of an unreasonable law of the Communist government about land ownership.

Nowadays in China, much large agricultural machinery has already implemented the same system as the United States. This illustrates that the Chinese farmers could manage modern agriculture well without others having to "improve their quality". This success is because the property ownership of the machinery is relatively clear, while land does not have a clearly defined ownership. All the other advances are not enough to change China's agricultural backwardness completely. Only when the land is privatized, then modern agriculture could take root in China. Otherwise it is merely a variant of the collective farms of the former Soviet Union.

History has proved that the public ownership of agricultural land is a backward step to the feudal era. It had brought massive famine to both the Soviet Union and China. Even with the means of using modern technology this outcome cannot be avoided. Although we have known this lesson clearly for many decades, why has the reform stalled after a half step forward 30 years ago? The greedy nature of the bureaucratic capitalists and the demand for cheap labor by international capital are the root causes that lead to the slow rural economic development in China.
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