China's Urbanization Plan Could Heighten Social Unrest

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A farmer works a vegetable patch beside a new housing project in Hefei, Anhui province, May 21, 2011.
A farmer works a vegetable patch beside a new housing project in Hefei, Anhui province, May 21, 2011.

China's growing focus on urbanization as a driver of economic growth could boost social tensions amid growing clashes over land between authorities and rural communities, analysts said Wednesday.

China's top economic planning body said on Wednesday it would throw its weight behind a growing focus on urbanization following a pledge by the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership under President Xi Jinping to widen economic reforms over the next decade.

Beijing's State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC) gave no immediate details of its plans. However, the party leadership has vowed to let markets play a "decisive" role in allocating resources under its new reform agenda unveiled on Tuesday.

Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said the government's preferred pattern was to acquire agricultural land for property development and then relocate former farming communities to urban areas.

"One example is in Chongqing, where they sent all the villagers to live in high-rise apartment blocks after requisitioning the agricultural land on the outskirts of the city," Liu said.

"Their land was then used for residential property developments."

'Like a storm'

Sichuan-based rights activist and founder of the Tianwang rights website Huang Qi said urbanization was hitting rural Chinese communities "like a storm," creating social disempowerment on a massive scale.

"Farmers who have lost their land are a fairly recent phenomenon in China that has emerged over the past 10 years," Huang said.

"[Their] numbers have been rising fast since 2006 ... and they have been gradually impoverished as a group [since then]," he said.

He said the government needed to take firm measures to protect the rights of farming communities in land acquisition deals, and to address the "problems left over" from the past decade of urbanization.

"Farmers who lose their land need to receive more compensation," Huang said.


According to Liu, the biggest problem created by the relentless pace of urbanization in recent years was that of unemployment among farmers forced from their land.

"The government provides farmers who have lost their land with social subsistence payments, but these payments in no way support any sort of dignified existence," Liu said.

"If the government actually provided [them] with some kind of practical training, [perhaps that would help]," he added.

Liu said China's training programs currently focused on turning out skilled computer operators and information technology support workers, chefs, and English teachers.

"There is no training [for farmers] that addresses local skills shortages in their own labor market," he said. "The government decides everything according to its own will, and they don't ask the farmers for their opinions."

Social unrest

The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments also triggers thousands of "mass incidents" across China every year.

Many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government's wishes.

Farmers who have lost land to development form a significant part of China's growing population of petitioners, ordinary Chinese who pursue complaints against the government, often for many years, and to no avail.

The party leadership said on Tuesday that it would establish an agency to "manage" growing social unrest, as part of its economic reform plan.

The new "state security committee" will tackle social instability and unify other agencies in charge of increasing security challenges, both foreign and domestic, the party's Central Committee said in a statement.

State news agency Xinhua said the committee would "improve the system of national security and the country's national security strategy" so as to "effectively prevent and end social disputes and improve public security".

China's nationwide "stability maintenance" system, which now costs more to run than its People's Liberation Army (PLA), tracks the movements and activities of anyone engaged in political or rights activism, including petitioners and lawyers who help farming communities during land disputes, across the country.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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