Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Another social protest about a land seizure in China. This year alone has seen over 150,000 of these protests. Does this mean that a groundswell of protest is building up in the Middle Kingdom? What is Beijing doing to head off this challenge to the power of the Communist Party of China?
There are plans to build another 221 cities. There are 23 million new cars hitting the roads this year and this number is expected to rise to 40 million annually by 2020. That means a huge amount of infrastructure has to be built. Local government is run like a business. The quickest way to add revenue is to sell land to developers at a fat profit. Chinese law says that farmers who lose their land have to be paid fair compensation. When this does not happen, violence erupts.
This is on the increase. Besides the farmers who lose their land, there is another side to the problem. The land being taken is arable or produces crops. China has about 7 per cent of the world’s arable land but has to feed about 20 per cent of the planet’s population. The government regards 120 million hectares of arable land as the minimum to ensure food security. One estimate is that this will be down to 117 million hectares by 2015.
So two factors are in play here: more and more cropland is being swallowed up by urban development with the result that China is running out of land to feed itself.
Back to the problem of farmers losing their land. Every country has laws which allow authorities to compulsorily purchase land needed for development. However there has to be adequate compensation. Where China is different is that its laws are being flouted by local authorities which need to make money fast in order to balance their budgets. Party officials are promoted according to their ability to expand the local economy. So the pressure is enormous. The courts are not very helpful. Judges and lawyers have been reminded by Beijing that their main function is to increase the authority of the Communist Party. They cannot side with farmers in local disputes. If they did they would undermine the rule of the Party at the local level. The aggrieved farmers have only two ways of making clear their opposition to land seizures: riot or send petitions to Beijing. The first is more effective than the second. China’s social media reports disturbances and thereby puts pressure on authorities to remedy the situation. On several occasions, the authorities have given in, most notably in Wukan last year.
China’s population is growing by about 20 million a year. The amount of arable land is already below the critical level to ensure food security. So what is the solution? Simple. Import more food. The country has over $3 trillion of currency reserves so can go out and procure what it wants. The other policy being adopted is to scour the world for arable land and buy or lease it. Sub-Saharan Africa has about 60 per cent of the world’s available farmland. So many deals have been struck, for instance, in Sudan. The Gulf States are also active so there is intense competition to secure land.
It is inevitable that social protests over land seizures in China will increase. Urbanisation, roads, railways and the like will reduce farmland even further. The only way to stop protests is to stop further development of the country. That is not possible so tension will escalate. Beijing is in a no win situation.