A Journey into Land Issues in China | Land Portal

The Land Portal Foundation’s launches the China Country Portfolio - a knowledge piece with a comprehensive understanding of the country’s land issues. Hit by COVID-19 a year ago, China is ever more pressed to adapt land usage rights to protect food sovereignty while also stimulating investment.

China is the first in a series of countries to be featured in a new portfolio on the Land Portal. This peer-reviewed knowledge piece summarizes the history and development of the country’s land governance system and analyses key elements of this system, such as the land legislation, trends in land use, how women access land rights and more.

“It seemed a daunting task reviewing a land system that accommodates a population approaching 1.5 billion people. Yet doing so allows one to trace the phenomenal economic growth of this remarkable country facilitated by radical shifts in its land laws and policy. In particular, it is fascinating to see how China has marketized land use while limiting full privatized ownership, reflecting the integration of enterprise within a socialist state,” says Daniel Hayward, author of this narrative and project coordinator of the Mekong Land Research Forum at Chiang Mai University as well as Local Knowledge Engagement Coordinator with Land Portal. 

His research for this country portfolio demonstrated that development in China has come at the cost of continuing wealth inequality with the gap and disparity in the incomes of urban and rural populations. This finding was also confirmed by peer-reviewer of the portfolio Xiaobo Hua, from Kyoto University.

Land dilemmas from the economic miracle

It is hard to overstate the economic miracle that has transpired in China over the last 40 years, taking it from a poor developing country to one with upper middle-income status. China is now the world’s second largest economy, and the largest trading country in the world, with both significant import and export industries. Despite this, there is continued wealth inequality. This disparity is particularly prominent between coastal provinces and cities, which were best positioned to take advantage from policies opening up the economy. It is a shift which is also mirrored in formal land tenure, as China has adopted a dual system with state-owned land in urban areas, and farmer collective-owned land in rural areas. 

Such a dual system could not be without tensions. There is ever growing competition between the use of vital agricultural land to feed a huge population and the desire to convert land for capital-generating developments. Between 2003 and 2015, over 11.5 million hectares of agricultural land were developed for non-farm uses in China.  

In fact, illegal acquisition and development on collective land are becoming a serious source of social discontent in China. A black market in land occupation and conversion prevails, particularly in the vicinity of popular urban areas where demand is at its strongest. The state has promised to better protect land use rights, improve compensation packages and increase the rural voice over negotiations for rural construction land. 

Not just a one man’s land

The legal framework of China has enshrined gender equality, and women’s names are to be registered on land certificates and not just the head of the household, most commonly a man. As a result of such legal frameworks, men and women theoretically share land use rights provided to households in rural areas, although in practice the reality often differs.  Furthermore, due to rapid urbanization and industrialization, many men have migrated to work in cities, leaving women in the countryside. This has led to feminization of agriculture where women have taken a greater role as labour and in the management of farms

Gaps that also inform 

“From policy makers to land practitioners in the field and the broader development community, these country portfolios provide a great entry point to better understand the land governance context of a country. They can help in project design, in scoping key lessons of land tenure interventions, but also in exposing important information gaps about land in a given country,” explains Romy Sato, Land Portal’s Network Coordinator responsible for the development of country portfolios.

“Our future plans are to scale up country profiles for more than 100 countries in the coming years, in close collaboration and cooperation with partners in the South,” says Laura Meggiolaro, Land Portal Team Leader.  We invite you to explore the China Country Portfolio and stay tuned for more Country Portfolios in the future.  

See the portfolio




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