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Why Have China’s Peasants Become the Major Force in Social Resistance?

June 4, 2009

Part 1 of series
Part 3 of series

In this second part of a three-part series on land rights and social stability in China, Chinese economist He Qinglian focuses on the rising conflicts between peasants and local governments over land ownership rights and identifies the main cause: China’s economic growth model. In this model, requisition of land, often by force, from peasants for resource extraction is the lead income generator for local governments, but increasingly deprives China’s vast peasant population of their livelihood. He warns that if the trend continues, the Chinese government may soon find itself in a checkmate: a choice between allowing local governments or peasants to survive.

The number of mass incidents occurring in 2008 rose to as high as 100,000,1 a figure that is clearly still growing. Both the Chinese government and China watchers feel that from 2009 on, social resistance in China will be in a peak period; the Chinese government is calling it “the year of widespread mass incidents,”2 and officials predict that the main actors in these “mass incidents” will be peasants and unemployed students.3 For over ten years now, social resistance by peasants has long constituted the primary basis of mass incidents in China.

I. Why Have Peasants Become the Core of Social Resistance?

In the overwhelming majority of developing countries, antagonism between peasants and landlords has been the principal form of social confrontation; in China, however, the landlord class was wiped out by the Chinese Communist government in the early 1950s through “land reform.” In the present stage, the primary target of resistance by Chinese farmers is the Chinese government and officialdom.

The relationship between China’s economic development model and social resistance

Investigating incidents of social resistance in China over the past dozen years, one will discover a strong correlation between the types of such resistance and the model of economic growth. Since the late 1990s, the four diamonds on China’s “treasure hunt map” have been real estate, mining, stocks, and finance. Local government revenues, in particular, relied heavily on the various taxes associated with land transfer payments and real estate. (Provinces rich in resources sell extraction rights.) China had little idle land; land sold by the government has come from land expropriated from the peasants and, in the city, land taken from its original occupants. Further, rights defense actions such as peasants resisting land expropriation, city-dwellers resisting demolition of their homes and relocation, and county and township residents resisting environmental pollution, are all related to China’s economic growth model. What’s more, all involve land. It can be said that the government’s natural resource extraction methods determine public policy; public policy molds the economic growth model and thus determines the types of social resistance that arises.

Real estate is the “lead industry” of China’s economy. While propping up half of local finances, it has also deprived approximately 78 million peasants of their land through government expropriation4 and caused approximately 3.7 million city dwellers to lose their homes through forcible eviction by the government.5 Local governments have based their coordinated land expropriation and removals on the Urban Housing Demolition Management Regulations6 of the Chinese State Council and have issued corresponding government laws and regulations, such as the Beijing Municipal Urban Housing Demolition and Removal Management Regulations,7 and so on. As a result of lawful robbery protected by public policy, peasants who have lost their land and city-dwellers evicted from their homes have become the primary components of the two main types of social resistance in China over the last dozen years.

In the overwhelming majority of developing countries, antagonism between peasants and landlords has been the principal form of social confrontation. In China, however… in the present stage, the primary target of resistance by Chinese farmers is the Chinese government and officialdom.

Social resistance related to environmental pollution has been steadily rising. According to official statistics, a linear rising trend has been evident in environmental pollution disputes from 1997 on, rising 25 percent per annum. In 2006 environmental complaints reached 600,000, an increase of 30 percent over 2005.8 From 2001 to 2005 there were 56,000, 71,000, 62,000, 51,000 and 28,000 environmental disputes, respectively, nationwide.9 These facts illustrate that China has entered a peak period of environmental accidents. In 2007, Chen Xiwen, Director of the Central Rural Work Leadership Group Office, stated that there were three main reasons why peasants petitioned the government: the greatest number stemmed from land expropriation, around 50 percent; the second greatest cause was embezzlement and corruption in village committees, around 30 percent; and the third was environmental pollution, around 20 percent.10 Based on reports in the official Chinese media, 10 percent of the nation’s arable land has been polluted. Harmful substances created by soil pollution accumulate in farm crops and enter the human body via food to cause diseases and endanger health.11

The boom in polluting industries is related to central government economic policy. Since the beginning of this century, the central government has energetically fostered resource-based enterprises as tax sources and has invested massively in heavy-chemical industries. An analysis of China’s tax administration’s “top 500 (taxpayers)” list since 2005 reveals that the top spots are held by oil companies and other resource-based industries.12 The prominence of heavy-chemical industries in the top 500 demonstrates the Achilles’ heel of China’s economic development model:massive energy consumption and severe pollution, exchanging China’s future survival for today’s “prosperity.” One can glimpse the shadow of the heavy-chemical industries in nearly every pollution accident in China in recent years. Of the ten largest environmental pollution accidents in China in 2006, half involved chemical leakages.13

We can say that in the past dozen or so years, social resistance has been most intense in those sectors on which Chinese economic growth relies. The Chinese government has deliberately turned a blind eye to the relationship between its economic growth model and social resistance because of the great reliance of revenues on these several economic sectors. Take as an example the reliance of local government revenues on the real estate industry, with Shanghai as a typical case. The city has the highest share of total sales revenue from real estate development projects flowing into city coffers: 61.84 percent. Industry residuals account for the smallest share: 4.15 percent.14 The portion of government revenues in other places that comes from the real estate industry is around 40-60 percent.

Why can’t Chinese peasants halt excessive extraction of resources by the government?

Chinese peasants are almost powerless to resist industrial pollution. In 2007, in Ganmu Village, Shijiang Township, Dongkou County, Shaoyang City, Hunan Province, there was a serious lead-poisoning accident caused by the Weiling Metal Mining Co., Ltd. The process of producing lead alloy resulted in emissions of massive amounts of toxic gas as effluent. Nearly a thousand villagers (mostly children) were tested at the local center for disease control and prevention, which found varying degrees of elevated amounts of lead in their blood. The villagers repeatedly attempted to file complaints and even resorted to fierce protest actions, demanding that the factory be closed down. But, shielded by the local government, production at the factory continued. Over a thousand villagers had no option but to flee, becoming homeless wanderers.16

The Chinese countryside can be said to have entered a period of minimal ability to resist risk and defend itself with the Chinese Communist accession to power. Any force from outside could rob the countryside of its resources (that is, the resources the peasants relied on for their existence), such as forests, sandbars, arable land, homesteads,mountains and fields, mineral deposits, aquifers, streams, lakes, ancient cultural relics, etc. And the reason outside forces could plunder the countryside at their pleasure is that under Chinese Communist rule, Chinese peasants have been stripped of their ownership rights to all the above-mentioned natural resources; all land has been returned to “state ownership” (rural “collective land ownership”). This system became the natural resource extraction pipeline by which local government, in collusion with outside forces, recklessly plundered the natural resources of the countryside.

The Chinese government has deliberately turned a blind eye to the relationship between its economic growth model and social resistance, because of the great reliance of revenues on these several economic sectors.

There are two kinds of legal sources of income for local governments in China.One is income from public power, namely, tax revenue. In 1993, China instituted its “divided tax system”: central and local governments divided various tax categories and collected the respective taxes. Those collected by local government were termed “land taxes”; those collected by the central government were termed “state taxes.” Another portion comes from public property revenue, which refers to local government income based on state property rights applied to natural resources. This includes four main categories: 1) resource development transfer income, such as land,mineral resources, scenic spots, maritime areas, lakes, etc.; 2) income from government administration of property and institutions, such as auctions, rents, etc.; 3) state-owned businesses and state-owned stock bonuses; and 4) income from granting various special permits, such as public space, public broadcast frequencies and TV channels, public media, etc., and public services charges, etc. As described above, public property rights income in category (1) constitutes the primary part of local government revenues.

In spite of repeated struggles by peasants against land expropriation, the Chinese government refuses to let land ownership return to the peasants.What is the reason for this? Very simply, state land ownership is like putting an enormous resource extraction pipeline into rural land, where it can suck out resources endlessly. In addition to contributing to local government revenues, it can support a whole array of “land consumers and land managers.”Take as an example Shaanxi Province, where in recent years land conflicts have come to the fore. There are currently over 100 staff members in the Gaoling County, Xi’an Land Bureau, but only about a dozen of them get paid from the budget; the rest draw their salaries from managing land (i.e., buying and selling land).A similar situation prevails in land bureaus in other counties and cities in Shaanxi.17

II. Peasants’ “New Land Revolution” and the Chinese Government’s “New Land Reform”

Land: Guarantee of Chinese Peasants’ Livelihood

In my article, “The Relationship between Chinese Peasants’ Right to Subsistence and China’s Social Stability,” I cited two figures: in the 11 years from 1996 to 2007, the total surface area of arable land in China shrunk by 125,000,000 mu.18 If we calculate according to the 1996 level of per capita arable land of 1.59 mu,19 this 125,000,000 mu reduction suggests that in excess of at least 78million peasants have lost their land. In addition, for many years, in the greater part of the countryside, land has not been allotted to new population; a great many people in villages have never had land. In the economic crisis, the scarcity of land in the countryside has become even more noticeable as migrant workers have lost their jobs: 6 percent of the 23 million returned migrant workers do not have land to farm.20

Some surveys have stated that young migrant workers or migrant workers’ children born in cities are unwilling to return to farming. Certainly this tendency exists, but in fact, in the absence of a system of guarantees for peasants, the land remains their last refuge because it offers them the most basic life security.21 The Chinese authorities are sufficiently aware of the fact that peasants’ reliance on the land is intensified once they have lost their jobs as migrant workers. In December 2008, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a warning, requiring “close observation of land transfer disputes arising with the return of migrant workers to the countryside.”22 Following closely on this, news of struggles over land appeared across the board. In Kaiping, Guangdong, returned migrant workers were anxious to reclaim farmland that years before had been leased to peasants from outside. This led to conflicts. Local returned migrant workers, wielding their “local boss” status, resorted to violence, reducing tenant peasants’ homes and pig sties to rubble, making it impossible for them to look after their fish ponds, animals, crops, and vegetables. These tenant peasants were full of grievances: years ago, because so many peasants from the village left to work outside, the fields were left barren; at the request of the village committee, they worked the land as tenants so that good farmland would not deteriorate.23 In Gaoshibei Town, Qianjiang, Hubei, famous as the “tailoring” town, with a population of over 30,000, nearly every family has a member who is a tailor by profession. Over 10,000 have left for work elsewhere. In 2008, the tide of unemployment forced nearly 3,000 of those back to the town. The number of land transfer disputes rose as a result. Liu Ruxuan, the head of the town’s management station, has to handle on average several such disputes per week.24

Struggles over land between returned migrant workers and peasants working on the land have occurred nationwide. There have been similar reports from Liaoning25 and Hubei,26 for example; the only difference being that incidents there have not been as violent as those in Kaiping, Guangdong. Regarding the question of how the issue of peasants’ land will finally be resolved, the views of peasants and those of the Chinese government are completely at variance.

Peasants’ proposal for a “new land revolution”

As described above, Chinese peasants are now experiencing tribulations that their forebears had never encountered. Since the 1990s, the Chinese government, under the guise of various laws and “public policies,” has either chased peasants off the land, or has seriously polluted the land on which the peasants depend for their living, pushing them into desperate straits. Since 2007, as peasants’ awareness of their plight deepened, they have shifted the center of gravity of their resistance activities from demands for reasonable compensation for expropriated land to demands to wrest back farmland that the government, using all sorts of excuses, had forcibly expropriated years ago. In the month of December 2007, there were three instances of peasants using the Internet to advocate for land ownership: on December 8, in Fujin city,Heilongjiang, 72 villages, with a total of 40,000 peasants, issued a “declaration to the whole nation on full land ownership”;27 70,000 Sanmenxia County peasants informed the nation of their joint decision to reclaim their rights to land ownership;28 and 250 farm households in villages in Yixing, Jiangsu insisted on their homestead ownership rights, demanding that a system of “home ownership” be instituted.29 In these successively-issued declarations to the whole Chinese nation by peasants, the common point is a clear advocacy for land ownership rights, in the belief that they are the true owners of the land. All this has caused some in China to call this round of peasants’ resistance a “new land revolution.”

The Communist Party of China’s proposed “new land reform” of 2008 was nothing but an accommodation of local government demands, the central government’s political acknowledgement of the fait accompli of huge transfers of rural land.

The peasants’ demand to reclaim land ownership rights can be said to be a direct challenge to the Chinese Constitution’s relevant articles and to the Land Management Law, for these two laws clearly stipulate that urban land is under state ownership and that farmland, too, is collectively owned—in fact, this mean that the collective “represents” ownership by the local government.

The Chinese government’s “new land reform”

Following their arrest for incitement of those in Heilongjiang and Shaanxi, the Chinese authorities began brewing up their own “new land contract rights transfer” proposal, completely different from the peasants’ proposals. This was the “new land reform” rolled out in October 2008 (called “new” relative to the land reform of the early 1950s). The government announced that it would end the current low efficiency farming model with its its scattered focus on the single household and centralized usage; its main point would be to “liberate”—delink—land from peasants.

Whose fervent desire is it, then, that peasants’ land contract rights be transferable?

The contest between peasants and government over land leaves the central government with the following choice: which shall be allowed to survive, the local governments or the peasants?

The answer is not hard to find. A 2002 report of the Communist Party’s “Sixteenth Central Committee” mentioned, “In areas where conditions permit, and in accordance with the law, voluntarily, and with payment of compensation, the right to transfer land contracts can be implemented and progressively expanded.”30 Following this, there appeared a succession of related laws and regulations on the rural land market in Shanghai, Jilin, Guangdong, Zhejiang, and other provinces.31 The Communist Party of China’s proposed “new land reform” of 2008 was nothing but an accommodation of local government demands, the central government’s political acknowledgement of the fait accompli of huge transfers of rural land. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture openly acknowledged that by the end of August 2008, for agricultural land nationwide, contract rights for a total area of 106,000,000 mu had been transferred, or 8.7 percent of all household contracted farmland. However, the situation varied from province to province; the ratio of land transfers in economically developed areas was much higher than that in economically backward areas. In late 2007, Shanghai had 1,340,000 mu of transferred land—53.7 percent of land area in the city. In Guangdong Province, by the end of December 2007, the area of rural land contract rights transferred stood at 14.4 percent of village household contracts, only one-third of which were transfers initiated by farm households.

From the above analysis it can be seen that Chinese peasants’ demands for a new land revolution is for land ownership to revert to peasants, that it will be peasants who decide on the sale and use of land, and that agricultural society will be rebuilt on this basis. The Chinese government hopes to satisfy local government revenue demands through the transfer of land contract rights and forced requisition of land at a low price. The two proposals represent entirely different interests and stand in opposition to each other. This is why, following the government order for a “new land reform,” peasants everywhere have continued to resist.32

Conclusion: The Land Contest between Peasants and Officials: A Checkmate

The struggle over the rights to land ownership between local governments and the people is like a checkmate against the government in that whichever move the government chooses would lead to defeat; it would only determine how and when. This is not an exaggeration because this is determined by China’s economic growth mode and the method of resource extraction.

The contest between peasants and government over land leaves the central government with the following choice:Which shall be allowed to survive, the local governments or the peasants? To demand that local governments cease robbing peasants of their land would certainly cut off those governments’ source of revenue. Sacrificing local governments (officials) is tantamount to the central government using its right hand to cut off its left. Forcing its own ruling base into opposition is simply a swift and self-inflicted death.Yet to continue to give tacit consent to local governments’ robbery of peasants’ land, such that peasants are left with no land to till, no work to do, and nowhere to go, with revolt their only option—the final result will be to jeopardize Chinese Communist rule, death by exhaustion after years of struggle.

“Stability” that relies on strong government control may be compared to the “stability” one gets from sitting on a volcano.

I call this opting for “the time of death” because our land resources are limited. The excessive reliance on property as a source of local government revenue is in itself a great danger. In 2007, a research group led by Peking University professor Ping Xinqiao found through field surveys of some provinces and cities that reliance on land sales for county or city revenue can be maintained for at most five to six years.Yet in Guangdong, upwards of half the counties and cities will be able to do so for only two to three years.33 This is to say that, seen in terms of land supply (setting aside for the moment the fact that demand for real estate is limited), the current Chinese model of economic development driven by the real estate industry will be difficult to sustain.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of this predicament, and had a think tank assess what degree of resistance by peasants will affect “political stability.” The think tank’s conclusion was that however great the resistance, as far as the authorities are concerned, “[it’s no worse than] ringworm—uncomfortable but not life threatening.”34 This verdict is predicated, of course, on maintaining confidence in the Chinese government’s ability to maintain strong control (namely, its absolute advantage in military might and organization). These are by no means empty words. In Hunan Province, peasant leader Ni Mingzeng wrote a piece titled “On the current situation,” expressing his feeling that at present Chinese peasants “have not reached the point of violent revolt, not that they are not prepared mentally and emotionally for this, but because the era of the broadsword and lance is past.” Crude weapons cannot compete with the modern military weapons of the authorities.35

“Stability” that relies on strong government control may be compared to the “stability” one gets from sitting on a volcano.

Translated by J. Latourelle


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9. For 2001-03 data, see Tang Hong,Ou Zhengtao, and Cai Yugao [唐虹,偶正涛及蔡玉高], “Huanjing xinfang tuxian ji da bianhua; yuantou huajie xu wanshan san zhidu” [环境信访凸现几大变化源头化解须完善三制度], China Environment News [中国环境报], January 17, 2005, Data for 2004-05 are taken from two articles by Director of the Bureau of Environmental Supervision of the State Environmental Protection Administration (now Ministry of Environmental Protection) Lu Xinyuan: Lu Xinyuan [陆新元], “Woguo huanjing jiancha zhifa gongzuo jinzhan, tiaojian yu duice” [我国环境监察执法工作进展、挑战与对策], September 19, 2005,; Lu Xinyuan [陆新元], “Gaige chuangxin pojie nanti; huanjing zhifa gongguo bixu shiying lishixing zhuanbian” [改革创新破解难题环境执法工作必须适应历史性转变], China Environment News [中国环境报], July 7, 2006, ^

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14. Tian Xinjie [田新杰], “Shanghai fangdichan kaifa chengben shidi diaocha” [上海房地产开发成本实地调查], 21st Century Business Herald [21世纪经济报道], March 15, 2009, ^

15. “Tudi churang jin gaige de hongguan jingji xiaoying” [土地出让金改革的宏观经济效应], 21st Century Business Herald
[21世纪经济报道], September 2, 2006, ^

16. “Hunan sheng Shaoyang shi Dongkoujiang zhen Ganshu cun, huanjing wufan, guanshang goujie, baixing zaoyang!” [湖南省邵阳市洞口县石江镇干木村,环境污染,官商勾结,百姓遭殃!], Hunan Zaixian Tousu Zhitongche [湖南在线投诉直通车], October 17, 2007, ^

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18. Liu Zhanchao [刘展超], “Zhongguo gengdi 11 nian jianshao 1.25 yimu, chao Henan quanbu gengdi mianji”
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19. “Gengdi gaoji nengfou shouzhu 18 yimu hongxian?” [耕地告急能否守住18亿亩红线?], Guangdong Construction News [广东建设报], October 7, 2008, ^

20. Chen Keqi [陈可奇], “Guojia Tongji Ju cheng 5.8% fanxiang nongmingong bei tuoqian gongzi]” [国家统计局称5.8%返乡农民工被拖欠工资], People’s Daily Online [人民网], March 26, 2009, ^

21. Wang Weibo [王维博], “Nongmingong fanxiang chao zheshe jiceng zhili kunjing, chengshi shiye zhuanjia nongcun” [农民工返乡潮折射基层治理困境,城市失业转嫁农村], China News Service [中国新闻网], December 1, 2008, ^

22. Yang Naifen [杨乃芬], “Nongye Bu yujing: Gaodu zhongshi nongmingong fanxiang hou tudi liuzhuan jiufen” [农业部预警:高度重视农民工返乡後土地流转纠纷], China Business News [第一财经日报], December 9, 2008, ^

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24. Wang Weibo [王维博], “Nongmingong fanxiang chao zheshe jiceng zhili kunjing, chengshi shiye zhuanjia nongcun” [农民工返乡潮折射基层治理困境,城市失业转嫁农村], China News Service [中国新闻网], December 1, 2008, ^

25. Ren Pengfei and Feng Lei [任鹏飞及冯雷], “Liaoning jiaqiang jiufen tiaojie baozhang fanxiang nongmingong tudi chengbao quanyi” [辽宁加强纠纷调解保障返乡农民工土地承包权益], Xinhua News Agency [新华社], February 26, 2009, ^

26. Zou Yuyu [邹妤禹], “Fanxiang nongmin zhengdi zhong” [返乡农民争地种], Zhongguo Xuan’enWang [中国宣恩网], February 27, 2009,; Guo Xisong,Wang Zheng, and Wang Weibo [郭习松、王政及王维博], “Tamen hui huilai zhengdi ma” [他们会回来争地吗], Hubei Daily [湖北日报], November 29, 2008, ^

27. “Heilongjiang sheng Fujin shi Dongnangang cun deng 72 cun 4 wan nonming xuanbu yongyou tudi suoyouquan xiang quanguo de gonggao” [黑龙江省富锦市东南岗村等72村4万农民宣布拥有土地所有权向全国的公告],December 8, 2007, ^

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29. “Jiangsu sheng Yixing shi Shengzhuang cun 250 hu nongmin jianchi zhai jidi suoyouquan, yaoqiu shixian ‘juzhe you qi wu’” [江苏省宜兴市省庄村250户农民坚持宅基地所有权要求实现“居者有其屋”],December 15, 2007, ^

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31. Wang Keqiang and Liu Hongmei [王克强及刘红梅], Chengshi jiaoqu jiti tudi jiage xingcheng jizhi yu liyi fenpei yanjiu [城市郊区集体土地价格形成机制与利益分配研究] (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 2007 [上海:上海人民出版社,2007年]). ^

32. He Qinglian, “The Relationship between Chinese Peasants’ Right to Subsistence and China’s Social Stability,” China Rights Forum, 2009, no. 1. ^

33. Ye Feng [叶枫], “Ping Xinqiao jiaoshou: xian, shi mai di caizheng shouru dingduo weichi wu liu nian” [平新乔教授:县、市卖地财政收入顶多维持五六年], 21st Century Business Herald [21世纪经济报道], January 8, 2007, ^

34. Ye Pengfei [叶鹏飞], “Wang Erping: Zhongguo shehui saoluan zengjia fasheng shehui geming kenengxing bu da” [王二平:中国社会骚乱增加发生社会革命可能性不大], Lianhe Zaobao [联合早报], February 12, 2009, ^

35. Yu Jianrong [于建嵘], “Nongmin you zuzhi kangzheng jiqi zhengzhi fengxian: Hunan sheng H xian diaocha (er)” [农民有组织抗争及其政治风险——湖南省H县调查(二)], July 1, 2003, ^

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