10/08/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Central committee plenum to discuss limited reforms for Chinese farmers

by Bernardo Cervellera
Starting tomorrow till Sunday the Central Committee of the Communist Party will hold its plenary session in Beijing. Rural reforms, poverty and unrest will be on the table. At present, farmers have no say in what happens to them. Rural incomes are four to five time lower than those in the cities.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Promoting reform and development in rural areas will be at the centre of the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party scheduled for tomorrow till Sunday. State media have not reported much on the matter; for example, the Xinhua news agency has stressed “reforms”, “improvement” and “development” without much content. Why the meeting now is unclear, except that reforms are being pursued for “the sake of social harmony,” to feed “more than a billion people” and maintain “national security.” What is certain is that with the world’s growing financial crisis and fear of a world-wide recession China wants to ensure food self-sufficiency.

In the last few years in tribute to the country’s economic boom Beijing has put aside one of Maoism’s main tenets, namely food independence. Instead the country has become dependent on foreign grains and rice as well as other food items. This year inflation has been running at 8 per cent, especially hitting hard prices for food like meat, vegetables, cooking oil and rice. This in turn has created tensions across the country and shaken “national security.”

But what is behind threats to security and social harmony run deeper. At least half of all episodes of social unrest that occur every year (86,000 for 2005, the last year for which the government released data) have been caused by clashes between farmers and local or party village chiefs. Attracted by easy money and bribes, the latter have often sold collectively-held land to land speculators and developers for new housing projects or industrial plants.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Land and Resources unlawful land seizures rose by 17.3 per cent compared to a year before for a total of 131,000 cases, involving about 100,000 hectares, 76 per cent more than in 2005. At least 43,000 hectares of this had been farmland.

So far unrest has been dealt with force.  Police have arrested “ringleaders” sending them to laogai camps. Shots have been fired on crowds. The map of unrest and repression covers many of China’s provinces: Hebei, Guangdong, Sichuan, Heilongjiang, Hunan, Fujian, etc.

Land seizures are commonplace because farmers do not have full title to the land they cultivate. Instead land is publicly held and traditionally let out for 30-year leases. Farmers can use the land but only for agriculture.

Compared to Mao’s collective farms where everything (land, output and earnings) belonged to the village, leasing farmland is an improvement.

The first reforms in rural areas go back to the 1980s under Deng Xiaping, when farmers were given greater say, which resulted in a four-fold increase in production.

However, unfettered industrial growth in the last 15 years has cut into farmers’ incomes to the benefit of urban areas. Members of rural communities have been harassed and their property seized to favour industrial development. Even public investments in health care and education have tended to favour cities where only 25 per cent of China’s population lives.

In Beijing there are persistent rumours that at the next Central Committee the government will extend land tenure contracts for another 70 years, allowing farmers to rent out their land and pass contracts onto their offspring, maintaining its long-term value.

Last week during a visit to the village of Xiaogang in Anhui province where the rural reform began 30 years ago, President Hu Jintao said that there would be more reforms in accordance with farmers’ wishes.

Will it be enough to take the wind out of social unrest? For some analyst the problem lies in the nature of the reform process itself, which is top-down and does not take into account what farmers have to say.

Whilst the government might keep food prices under control in rural areas (unlike cities where they are free) and even extend land tenure (yet still unwilling to grant full ownership title to farmers), its health care and education spending is disproportionately (80 per cent) skewed towards cities with crumbs left over for the country’s 750 million farmers.

In fact farmers’ incomes are four to five times lower than that of urban dwellers, i.e. 4,000 yuan (US$ 600) against 14,000 yuan (US$ 2,100), a gap that has grown over the last 30 years ago.

For some scholars the standards of living of farmers are actually lower than under Mao Zedong.

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