Call for Rural Land Rights

Former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong says the recent decision to allow China's farmers to lease or transfer farmland contracted under the "responsibility" system hasn't gone far enough.
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Bao Tong at his Beijing home, April 2008.
Bao Tong at his Beijing home, April 2008.

Writing shortly after a meeting of the top echelons of Communist Party leadership in which they decided to allow the transfer of land-use rights between China's farmers, Bao Tong, under house arrest since his political career ended in jail following the student-led protests of 1989, traces the history of land reforms on both sides of the Taiwan Strait:

China's Communist Party central leadership recently held a meeting at which they passed a decision on “furthering reforms and development in the countryside.” While the document hasn't been made public yet, its contents have already filtered out. They are planning to make land use rights transferable for rural residents. Some people say this is a momentous decision, calling it the “new Third Plenum,” or “the new land reforms.”

The “land to the tiller” program was in fact a form of land privatization, the brainchild of Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen that never belonged to Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. But there was a time when neither the Communists nor the Kuomintang (KMT) disagreed with this approach. In the mainland, it was implemented sooner, amid the storms of war and revolution. During this time, millions of landlords were forced to attend “struggle sessions," given “hats” to wear, and subjected to torture and ruthless attack in the first step on the road to dictatorship.

Peaceful implementation

In Taiwan, things went differently. They managed to implement their land reforms peacefully, and that privatization program has remained stable to the present day, its success tested over the course of several decades.

It was that program which enabled Taiwan's economy to take off while supporting its ability to exist and develop. The program also allowed the KMT to exist and to transform. Mao Zedong's hurried approach to land reform didn't arise out of necessity; it was a deliberate strategy which pitted the peasants against the KMT. Hard on the heels of this land reform was to follow collectivization, which once and for all stripped rural residents of their land rights.

What sort of system strips the peasants of their land rights? This is partly well understood by all and partly misunderstood by all. In my view, we should frankly admit that it is a system of bureaucratic ownership that is dominated by Communist Party and government officials at every level.

Basic problem

Anyone in China in their 70s or 80s will know that one of the Communist Party's maxims runs like this: China's basic problem concerns the peasants, and the basic problem of the peasants is that of the ownership of land. This sounds great. The Party never said it would implement a system of bureaucratic land ownership. But that's exactly what they have done, the length and breadth of the country. And this system has benefited neither China's rural communities, nor its happiness and development.

The economic reforms of the early 1980s threw out the collective system of land ownership and the enforced collective sale of agricultural produce instituted by Mao, and this was a great achievement at that time. But there wasn't time to do the same to the system of bureaucratic ownership, and China's farmers were left with only an insecure form of land use rights. They still lacked ultimate ownership, and were consequently left powerless in the face of concerted encroachments on their land by combined bureaucratic and commercial interests. The result was a sharp drop in the total area of land used for farming, and the ecological environment in China has worsened steadily since.

Farmers left out

Over the last 50 years, the Chinese Communist Party has run up a debt the size of the heavens with China's farmers. This plenum is hugely disappointing news for China's rural residents and for the whole nation, because it has failed to throw out the bureaucratic system of land ownership, and failed to confer full property rights on China's farmers.

We have come a very long way from the China of Mao Zedong. We already have a Property Rights Law. In China, capital, intellectual property, and one's own labor can all now be owned and protected; you can have any kind of market now. Only the peasants still stand out as lacking the right to private ownership of their land, for which there is still no market.

Extracted from the original essay by Bao Tong broadcast on RFA's Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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