HONG KONG—Vast tracts of China's rural land have already been lost to agriculture in the name of economic development, and the country stands to lose a further 1.2 million square kms unless the government acts to stop it, experts said.
"Changes in land use must be controlled within set parameters," China Agricultural University chief Ke Bingsheng told a recent top-level meeting in the northern Chinese proivince of Shanxi.
Around 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) of agricultural land could soon be lost, Ke warned.
"There is a shortage of land supply, and the forces of urbanization are an inevitable part of development," he said.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by farming communities every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Detentions, beatings, and further harassment of those who dare to complain are commonplace.
As the experts met in Shanxi, police and local residents in southwestern Sichuan's Zhongjiang county clashed, with unconfirmed reports of deaths from explosions resulting from the violence.
Local residents said the clashes were sparked Monday by anger over what they said was the use of violent force by the authorities to forcibly evict them from their homes.
And in the Baiyun district of the southern city of Guangzhou, residents demonstrated outside government offices over plans to redevelop their residential community.
"The villagers are opposed to the redevelopment, and they don't agree with the eviction," the Party secretary of Xiaogang village confirmed Wednesday.
"We haven't sold our land, and nothing has been demolished yet."
Along with social unrest caused by evictions, food security is also at the forefront of officials' minds, as China can no longer rely on its own production to feed its 1.3 billion-strong population.
"China's demand for grain has risen since the self-sufficiency of the 1980s," according to Wu Kegang, Chief China Adviser for the British Chambers of Commerce.
"They are already relying partially on grain imports."
Zhou Bingyuan, economics professor at the City University of New York, said there are also sustainability concerns around such rapid urbanization projects in rural areas.
"In order to continue to grow, an economy has to take into account the ecological balance and the issue of environmental protection," Zhou said.
"The agricultural sector is taking up a smaller and smaller share of GDP, and Chinese farmers are dwindling in number," he said.
Zhou said that a free-market agricultural sector is unlikely to emerge any time soon, however.
Wang Wange, head of the Nanjing Agriculture and Land Management Institute, said any changes of land use should be governed by contractual relationships, and not refused simply because the agricultural sector is shrinking.
He cited the example of salt flats in the Yangtze river estuary near Shanghai.
"These salt flats aren't usable [as farmland], but they could be used for an industrial zone after ... processing," Wang said.
"Of course urbanization is going to lead to the loss of farmland ... Of course agricultural land on the edges of cities is going to be affected by the expansion of the cities.
He said the answer lies in increased productivity of remaining farmland and a higher-end approach to agricultural output.
Profits from new property developments in China can swell the coffers of cash-strapped and indebted local governments, as well as boosting tax revenues to the central government in Beijing.
Land disputes have spread across China in recent years, with local people often complaining that they receive only minimal compensation when the government sells tracts to developers in lucrative property deals or evicts them from their homes in downtown areas.
Attempts to occupy disputed property frequently result in violent clashes, as police and armed gangs are brought in to enforce the will of local officials.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai and Fang Yuan, and in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.