New rules governing the transfer of rural land in China have sparked concerns that the ruling Communist Party may be gearing up for the mass confiscation and reallocation of farmland in the name of “stabilizing the grain supply,” Radio Free Asia has learned.
The Ministry of Agriculture announced this week it will roll out a pilot scheme to “standardize” the transfer of rural property rights, as well as “strengthening supervision and management” over the use of rural land in China, which is typically leased to farmers on 30-year “household responsibility” contracts, with the ownership remaining with the government.
The move comes after the administration of supreme party leader Xi Jinping made it easier in 2016 for farmers to be bought out of household responsibility leases, to encourage farmers to relocate to urban areas to reduce rural poverty.
China declared in November 2020 that it had eliminated extreme poverty, with analysts attributing the change in statistics to the mass relocation of younger migrant workers to cities, under strong official encouragement.
Under the new land rules, officials are expected to “give full play to government leadership” via controversial “agricultural management” enforcement officials, who critics fear will send the country back to Mao-era collective farming and micromanagement of people’s daily lives.
Analysts and farmers said that the main point of the additional controls is the tightening of state control over the supply of grain and to facilitate the transfer of rural land away from farmers if needed.
The move comes amid an ongoing government campaign to “stabilize the grain supply” and other moves to ensure food security, including revamping moribund Mao-era food co-ops and ordering the construction of state-run canteens.
The rules insist on “disciplined transactions” including supervision of contract-signing and “certification,” and could pave the way for the mass reallocation of farmland in future, analysts said.
A rural resident of the eastern province of Shandong who gave only the surname Zhang for fear of reprisals said he had recently found that farmers in his hometown now need a permit to farm land already leased to them.
“I went back home and the neighbors told me that you now need a permit to till the land,” Zhang said.
He blamed the “national food crisis” for the move, saying it effectively means that rural residents can no longer have friends and neighbors take care of their land when they migrate into the cities to look for work.
“When my relatives and friends would go to look for work, they would have others till their land for them, with no need for any kind of contract,” Zhang said. “Then, they could just pick it up again immediately if their work ended and they went back to live in the countryside.”
“That’s no longer possible due to the serious nature of the national food crisis,” he said.
Another major land reform
Financial commentator Cai Shenkun said the scope of the pilot scheme is unprecedented.
“This is another major land reform [following on from 2016], and it’s worth observing whether the next step will be to roll it out to all rural land governed by household responsibility contracts,” Cai said.
“Given the involvement of the agricultural management officials who are now empowered to enforce the law, I think it has something to do with the next step, which will be the confiscation and reallocation of land,” he said.
Agricultural management officials are among a slew of local officials empowered in a July 2021 directive to enforce laws and regulations without the involvement of the police.
There are growing signs of unease around the new breed of rural “enforcer.”
Netease and Sina Weibo’s news channels reported on Wednesday that a team of agricultural management officials seized two truck-loads of live pigs and sent the animals for slaughter on the grounds that quarantine regulations hadn’t been followed.
After that, the farmers complained that they had received no money for the carcases, and that the trucks hadn’t been returned to them.
Photos of the equipment issued to the “enforcers” showed first-aid kits, mobile phone signal jammers and stab-proof vests.
‘A new devil’
The reports prompted comments complaining of intrusive management of farmers’ lives, and asking if the agricultural enforcers were “a new devil for the New Era,” in a satirical reference to one of supreme leader Xi Jinping’s ideological buzzwords.
A farmer from the southwestern province of Sichuan who gave only the surname Sen said the enforcers were also active in his part of the country.
“They are bringing in this policy now, which is evil,” Sen said. “The agricultural management teams have so much power.”
“They are descending on the countryside and making life hell for ordinary people with all this rectification.”
Cai’s perception of the new rural management teams was similar to Sen’s and to comments seen online by Radio Free Asia, and he likened them to the widely hated urban management enforcement teams, or chengguan, who are often filmed beating up street vendors in the name of civic pride.
“Now they are sending these so-called agricultural management teams into countless households, and into the fields,” he said.
“They came into being, like the urban management officials before them, because when farmers aren’t cooperating, local township and village officials don’t want to show their faces, or get involved in beating people up or demolishing stuff,” he said.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.