Yu Jianrong (于建嵘)
Yu Jianrong is the director of the Rural Development Institute's Social Issues Research Center at CASS and has written extensively on rural politics.
Yu spoke to Southern Metropolis Weekly about the new policies on rural land rights that were proposed at the party congress sessions earlier this month. In his view, the measures do little to change the current situation, at least as it exists in the law.
Instead, they have symbolic value as a sign that the government is not ignoring the rights of rural residents. By reaffirming farmers' land use rights and their freedom to both transfer and retain those rights, the document acts as a reminder to local government officials not to pressure farmers into selling off their rights (something that Yu has repeatedly stressed in previous articles).
Yu Jianrong: First fix the law, then we can talk about bringing housing land to market
by Peng Xiaoyun, Zhang Jinling / SMW
Southern Metropolis Weekly: At the recently-concluded third session of the 17th Party Congress, the central committee passed a Resolution on Several Major Issues Involved in Furthering Rural Reform and Development and made the complete text public on the 19th. Do you think this document sends a signal?
Yu Jianrong: There's actually little new here. Briefly, what it solves is the relationship between farmers and the issue of the land transfer. It doesn't address the problem of transforming rural land to urban land, or how to deal with the relationship between farmers and the state. The importance of this as a symbol lies in the fact that it and related statements from the Third Session are a confirmation and development of an already-existing system for land transfers.
SMW: Then what is the emphasis of this particular reiteration?
Yu: I believe that the major emphasis is that no regulations should weaken farmers' legal land transfer rights. Critically, it emphasizes that this legal right has two basic implications: one is that I can transfer the rights to my land, and the other is that I can decline to do so. Actions that infringe on farmers' rights are illegal, and forcing farmers to transfer their land rights is an infringement. This needs to be stressed.
SMW: Land transfer is ultimately the transfer of land use rights. What will it take for this to become property income for farmers?
Yu: The possibility exists. Why? Let us consider for a moment what is meant by "land ownership." Land ownership rights encompass four basic areas under the law: possession, income, use, and disposal. The concept of ownership consists of who occupies and uses the land, who receives income from the land, and how it can ultimately be disposed of. Under the current situation in the countryside, a contract for land allows you to occupy and use it. You can plant rice paddies, and the income from what you grow belongs to you. So farmers already have three rights: possession, use, and income, but they cannot ultimately dispose of it, they can't sell off their land, meaning that the land ownership system does not change. But they are able to transfer the three other rights. In today's China, the concept of land ownership rights is pretty confused.
SMW: Urban commercial property is actually in a similar situation in that it's not private. But cities have clear property rights.
Yu: Correct. What's key here is whether people can obtain land rights. As things are, there's one major interest that has yet to be obtained. Land ownership rights involve the relationship of farmers to the state, so if the issue is not taken care of, the government will still controls land requisitions. Farmers need to sell their land to the government before it can be sold to developers, meaning that the government can exploit farmers' interests in the process.
SMW: Is this where we've had the problem all these years? Local governments rely on this for their revenue, and it has been the source of lots of farmers rights disputes.
Yu: Correct. But there's no way to change it. If you won't risk touching it, it'll never change, because it involves the fundamental interests of local governments. Will they so easily give it up?
SMW: What is the biggest implication of this policy as it pertains to farmers' interests?
Yu: The biggest implication for farmers is that it stresses farmers' rights in the transfer of land. And it also mentions land partnerships, although partnerships carry with them major risks that farmers should be aware of. Legal partnerships may not pay dividends, providing more opportunities for actions that might be used to entice farmers, so when it comes time to transfer their land rights they should be well aware of this. The government should also guide farmers in land transfers, taking precautions against allowing stronger parties to partner with local government officials to mislead farmers in the name of land transfer. We must be sure to emphasize that farmers must say no to illegal or involuntary land transfers, and we must let farmers know that they have the right to refuse land transfers. Moreover, the government has the responsibility to protect farmers' rights to refuse to transfer their land rights. This must be made extremely clear.
SMW: Is that sort of thing already beginning? What problems have you found in your field investigations?
Yu: There's too much of it. In the course of my investigations I discovered governments adopting a policy of land transfer and saying to farmers, "You've got to transfer your land rights." In Baoding, Hebei, for example, some places have already begun to seize farmers' land. The first problem lies in confirming land rights, which may lead to conflicts: how should rights be determined? The second problem is when I force you to transfer your land if you refuse. We need to have a clear understanding of these phenomena.
You've got to consider this problem: normally, farmers have a clear view of their own interests, like buying a home or selling things, and we all are able to make price judgments with complete regard for the voluntary principle. Even if they'll take losses on something, they'll willingly accept it. But when things are involuntary and forced, it leads to social discord. You can't simply think up ways to coerce and cheat them.
SMW: We have been awaiting a breakthrough in the binary system of the cities and the countryside, regarding land transfer or the exchange of housing land. It looks as if this policy doesn't have much to do with housing land ( ).
Yu: There's not much of a connection. And besides, we can't simply place all our hopes for breaking the binary system on housing land. One major problem with the system is that it has two identities behind which lie major interests ranging from politics to the economy to social security. One major reason that we are bringing up the issue now is this: suppose we gave the land to farmers. They could sell it as housing land, but selling housing land will not provide them with any guarantees for the future. So the critical problem in this binary system is how public expenditures can be made more fair. For example, the city of Guangzhou has 100 billion this year, so we could put perhaps 9 billion into urban development and nothing into the countryside when we determine the budget. But then wouldn't the system stay in existence? So the problem is not how farmers can sell housing land, but how to allow farmers an equal share of public finances.
SMW: Previously, Guangzhou's state-owned land departments disclosed that the city is investigating the rights situation of rural housing land. One agency source said that housing land could increase the housing supply if it was put on the open market, but one precondition would be to clear up the rights issue. This is one major problem facing the open trading of housing land. Will some locations be able to explore this issue first?
Yu: It will be possible for certain areas to explore housing land trading, but policies have not yet been relaxed to that extent. At present, housing land reform is in conflict with the Property Rights Law which, while it clearly states that building and other land improvements can be mortgaged by debtors or third parties, also clearly states that rural housing land itself cannot be mortgaged. Under the current legal framework, this means that rural housing cannot be registered for property rights.
Encouraging trial areas to explore institutional reforms to allow rural housing land to come to market is a good thing. But relevant judicial interpretations pertaining to uniform registration of real estate are needed quickly, as well as prompt corrections and additions to the Guarantee Law in light of conflicts introduced by the rules contained in the Property Rights Law.
SMW: If housing land can be exchanged for urban housing, urban household registration, and urban social security, what effect do you see this having on society?
Yu: At present I can't envision the possibility of farmers exchanging housing land to become urban residents in significant numbers because there is too large of a financial shortfall. The current urban social security system is unable to cover all urban residents as it is, so how could it support a massive rural population? However, looking at things globally, the urbanization of rural residents is an inevitable trend. Burdens on cities will increase as the population becomes even denser, requiring even greater investments in public infrastructure. In terms of housing, perhaps things will be like the west, with the potential for migration to the suburbs.
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