MSU Researchers: China Needs More Protection of Farmer Land Rights

EAST LANSING, Mich. — China should protect land rights of all farm families and restrict corporate farming, argues a Michigan State University researcher whose team found that secure farm land rights will be key to closing the income gap between Chinese cities and countryside. 

The study was recently published in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ 2011 blue book, an annual report of China’s rule of law. It found only 44 percent of China’s 200 million farming families has been issued land-rights documents as required by law, said Jeff Riedinger, dean of MSU’s International Studies and Programs, and a co-author of the study. 

Where implemented, China’s current land tenure reform program, adopted in 1998 to reduce poverty, gives farmers 30-year, extendable rights to their parcels.  

International studies and programs dean Jeffrey Riedinger. Image credit: Michigan State University

“We found Chinese farmers with secure land rights were 76 percent more likely to make long-term investments,” Riedinger said. “And this means they could become more significant consumers of goods and services, potentially increasing export market opportunities for Michigan companies and in-country markets for General Motors and Ford.”  

In 2009, gross income from land investments is estimated at about $69 billion, which is more than 12 percent of China’s total rural income for that year, according to the researchers. China has 800 million rural citizens. 

“Long-term investments include planting orchards or tea gardens and expanding the number of farm animals,” said Hui Wang, a MSU graduate student and Riedinger’s research assistant. “These investments substantially boost farm household income.” 

In addition, the researchers found an upswing in the acquisition of farmers’ land rights, often illegally and involuntarily taken by village officials for transfer to corporate farmers. Even with noteworthy accomplishments in rural land policy laws, one out of 10 rural villages experienced a land taking in 2010, according to Riedinger and his collaborators. 

Often, the land is converted to nonagricultural uses, which threatens China’s grain security, Riedinger said. And large-scale farming is rarely more productive than family farms with stable and secure land rights. 

A Chinese farmer holds a pear. China has 200 million farming families. Image credit: Michigan State University

Riedinger explained the increase in such acquisitions could be the result of local governments across China striving to keep economic growth on track by selling land rights.  

“China’s economic development is inextricably linked to how well policies promoting secure land rights are understood and implemented at the local level,” Riedinger said. 

As such, the team has shared the survey findings and discussed preliminary policy recommendations with government policymakers in China. 

The study is the fifth in a series by MSU, Renmin University and Landesa, a rural development institute. Conducted in mid-2010, the survey covered 1,564 households in 17 provinces that together contain an estimated 83 percent of China’s rural population. Farmers were asked questions on a range of topics, including whether they had received land rights certificates and land rights contracts and how the process of integrating urban and rural development was working in practice. 

*Source: Michigan State University

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