The earthquake that devastated Sichuan province in 2008, killing more than 80,000 and displacing millions, ripped through the tourist town of Dujiangyan in three terrifying minutes.
As people rebuilt their lives and homes in the aftermath of the quake, officials eased restrictions on land sales, which are closely managed and hugely controversial in China. Five years later, in the wake of this week’s senior Communist party meeting promising economic reform, a watered-down version of the Dujiangyan experiment on selling land zoned for building – as opposed to farmland – is now likely to be rolled out across the country.
This week’s Third Plenum concluded with calls to establish “an integrated urban-rural construction land market” and give “rural dwellers more property rights”. In a sign of how eager provinces are for change, Anhui yesterday said it would set up land exchanges, cutting out the government middlemen that buy rural land zoned for building on the cheap and resell it for far more.
But Chinese experts have warned against reading too much into the plenum’s calls on land reform. Under the Communist system, all land in China belongs to the state. The proposed reforms will not lead to the introduction of individual property rights. There was similar talk of reform in party policy meetings five years ago but that failed to result in sweeping change, said Shi Xiaomin, vice chair of China Society of Economic Reform. The earlier communiqué used the word “gradually”, wrote Jinsong Du of Credit Suisse in Hong Kong: “Removing ‘gradually’ may indicate a sense of urgency, but it also implies things did not change much in the past five years – due to various challenges. Therefore, we may not see the widely expected breakthroughs on land reforms any time soon.”
The political impetus for change is clear. In contemporary China, farms and homes are easily expropriated to make room for cities, highways, factories and mines. Villagers are compensated according to a fixed formula that has little relationship to the market value of the property. The immense difference between the legal cost of expropriation and the price of sale to a developer is a main source of revenue for local governments, as well as a big temptation for corruption. The party has identified the resulting discontent – along with corruption – as a leading threat to its continued rule. “Land disputes make up the most common type of social unrest, certainly accounting for over half,” says Wang Erping, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In Dujiangyan, residents rebuilding their homes were allowed to transfer some land rights directly. People rebuilt smaller, more modern homes, freeing the remainder of their plots for sale to small hotels or tourist shop developers from out of town, according to a detailed study of the pilot published in the China Economic Journal. But the fact that such small plots were sold individually might make it impractical for wider scale replication, given the speed at which Chinese cities are growing.
The government is more likely to replicate pilots tried out in elsewhere in Sichuan province.
In the city of Chengdu, rural land zoned for building can be sold in blocks on an exchange. This way, rural dwellers receive a much higher return on sales to urban developers than when local governments acted as middlemen.
But any reform is unlikely to be free of controversy. Block sales are likely to lead to disputes if villagers are forced to move.
“Such a big decision should be taken by the village committee together. But if village leaders sell off the land, pocket the money and don’t tell people, it could be a big source of problems,” says Professor Wang.
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi
但中国一些专家警告称，不能对三中全会的土地改革抱有太多期待。在共产党的制度下，中国的一切土地都归政府所有。拟议中的改革不会带来个人土地产权。中国经济体制改革研究会(China Society of Economic Reform)副会长石小敏表示，五年前党的政策会议曾发出类似言论，但并未开启全面改革。瑞信(Credit Suisse)的杜劲松在香港写道，上一次的公报用了“逐步”一词：“不再用‘逐步’这个词也许说明有一定的紧迫感，但它也意味着，面对各项挑战，过去五年基本上是在原地踏步。因此，我们可能不会很快看到土地改革方面出现各方广泛期待的突破。”
改革的政治原动力是十分明显的。在当代中国，农田和住宅都很容易被征收，用于城市建设、高速公路、工厂和矿业。村民们按照一种固定的计算公式得到补偿，补偿金额与地产的市场价值几乎毫无关系。法定征地成本与向开发商出售土地所得之间的巨大差价，是地方政府财政收入的主要来源之一，也是腐败的一大诱惑力。党意识到，由此滋生的不满——以及腐败——已对其持续统治构成一大威胁。“土地纠纷是最常见的社会不安定形式，肯定超过一半，”中国科学院(Chinese Academy of Sciences)的王二平表示。
在都江堰，重建家园的居民们被允许直接转让某些土地权利。根据《中国经济期刊》(China Economic Journal)发表的对这个试点项目的详尽研究报告，人们重建了更小、更现代化的住宅，腾出余下的地块出售给小旅店或者从外地来的旅游商店开发商。但是，考虑到中国城市建设的速度，这些小地块在个别基础上出售这个事实，可能意味着这种模式不适合大范围推广。