(2007) JLP 55: 211-244
Benjamin van Rooij
China’s many conflicts over land acquisition highlight China’s growing gap between rich and poor, between a small group of powerful land-hungry elites and the masses of powerless farmers. They show that despite the current stronger formal recognition of farmers’ land use rights and the introduction of devolution and participatory processes including direct village elections, land tenure security is weak. Vague property rights, weak legal procedures for state land acquisition and low legal compensation requirements can only partly explain the continuing land abuses. The fundamental problem is the price gap between arable land and construction land in combination with weak checks and balances on local elites. At present farmers lack adequate formal legal mechanisms to defend their rights when faced with such land acquisitions. As a result, they have tried to use non-legal, factual, and often violent means to protect their interests, with mixed results. The case of peri-urban Kunming shows that mere institutional changes such as enhancing the law’s procedures for acquisition and compensation, the introduction of direct village elections, the development of administrative law and political campaigns to punish abuses have so far not succeeded in enhancing tenure security. Only in areas where a fundamental economic change has occurred and farmers no longer solely depend on agricultural income have elections, petitions and protests been successful in changing practices and making local elites more accountable to the local population. This paper is based on prolonged fieldwork in peri-urban Kunming in Yunnan province during which local farmers, leaders, entrepreneurs and state enforcement officials were interviewed on ongoing land acquisition conflicts.