Autonomous urbanization needed

Peasants have paid a heavy price for China’s political and economic transition. They have nothing left to lose except their land, and now, even that is likely to be taken away. 

As big cities expand, hundreds of suburban villages are engulfed by urbanization and the land ownership in the rural enclaves in cities has important legal and economic implications. 

In the current policy framework, all urban land in China belongs to the State, which can be bought by individual citizens as a commodity. But, rural land cannot be traded, as it belongs collectively to the villagers.

However, it is easy for middlemen, frequently covert real estate developers with State-owned enterprise backgrounds, to ‘buy’ village heads and the village committee, who as representatives of all the villagers then transfer the collective ownership of rural land to State ownership of urban land.

Villagers are not only granted urban residence permits, or hukou, but also receive, sometimes forcibly, a land transfer fee, usually only a thin slice of the true value of their land.

The hidden rule is that once an urban residence permit is granted to a villager, his or her share of land in the village, worthless under collective ownership, for it is not recognized by Chinese law as commercial land, will immediately become valuable land, exorbitantly priced by local governments for land dealers, while the villager will only receive a tiny share of the land transfer fees.

In fact, peasants have no rights to make their choices or bargain with anyone else, but must submit to the forces of authority and accept symbolic crop compensation. Peasants whose lands are incorporated into a city’s expansion are usually assigned several apartment suites in matchbox buildings as compensation for the loss of their farm houses, with such seeming wealth, they rarely have any idea how much they have really lost in the land deals.

However, Cai Jiming, director of the Center of Political Economy with Tsinghua University, says that lands in China, no matter rural or urban, are subject to the same rights. Collective ownership is one important form of legal ownership of land in China. As long as the authorities respect and protect the private properties of city dwellers, the peasants deserve the same treatment when it comes to their land, one of their most important properties.

Cai points out that under China’s laws the authorities should only acquire land from peasants in the cause of public interest, for example the construction of railways, highways, parks, schools, etc., but the truth is, most of the land bought from peasants is used for real estate developments. Once the government acquires lands from peasants, arable farmlands quickly become construction sites for commercial use without deliberate planning.

He suggests the government should accept the fact that more and more villages will become part of cities and embrace autonomous urbanization. He proposes an alternative model of autonomous urbanization by peasants. Collective ownership of land should be maintained even after the villages are already engulfed by the expanding cities.

Cai points to the such towns as Lijiang in Yunnan province, Wuzhen in Zhejiang province and Zhoucun in Shandong province as examples where the urbanization was conducted by local peasants as they adjusted to local industrial and environmental conditions.

Grass-root villages in China have been playing an important role in social governance and public welfare affairs. Their functions are far from dying out. Why not give local peasants more say and rights to develop their own lands and economies? It is the city developers who should get off their high horses and rediscover the values of rural China and the proper urbanization model for this country.

Jason Lee is an editor of He can be reached at his email

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