Law offers hope for rural stability
Rural experts are keeping their fingers crossed that the new land contract law will help deter local cadres from violating farmers' rights.
The law - passed by the National People's Congress on Thursday - is the most significant yet to spell out the rights of farmers under the household responsibility system, which was put in place after communes were disbanded in the late 1970s.
But whether the law - which becomes effective on March 1 - will be able to shield farmers from rampant land seizures and other abuses by local officials will depend on farmers' knowledge and ability to use it as a legal weapon, analysts say.
The drafting of the law drew attention from officials and scholars as it was seen as crucial to maintaining stability in the countryside. Land disputes between local officials and farmers have long been a major cause of conflicts in rural areas, while Beijing has also been swamped with petitions from farmers over land disputes with local officials.
Rural experts agreed that Article 34 was the most important clause in the law. It lays out the important principle that all land transfers must be made by farmers, not the rural collectives which own the land.
Rural land belongs to rural collectives, in the form of villages. Although farmers' rights are supposed to be protected by contracts they signed with the collectives, many local officials have flouted the regulations and seized land. The land is then often sold to businessmen from outside the villages, usually in the name of modernisation, and the proceeds pocketed.
Li Ping, the Beijing representative of the Rural Development Institute non-governmental organisation, said Article 34 required the signatures of farmers in any re-contracting of land, meaning local officials could not authorise land transactions without the consent of the farmers.
And the law's Article 36 stipulates that all proceeds of a land transaction must go to the farmer.
'It lays down three principles for land transfer: it has to be done voluntarily, with compensation [to farmers], and in accordance with the law,' Mr Li said.
Wang Jingxin, a researcher with the Institute of Reform and Research in Hainan province, said the law would be instrumental in maintaining rural stability as it guaranteed no change of tenure for at least 30 years.
Farmers first started signing 15-year leases with local authorities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After the expiry of the contracts, farmers were re-allocated land and signed contracts with the local authorities for another 30 years.
The law also breaks ground by awarding women the same land rights as men. It specifies the situations in which a woman's land cannot be seized by her home village even after she has moved. There are also specific provisions addressing the growing trend of migration to cities.
But while the law spells out the penalties for violating farmers' rights, Mr Li said whether it would protect farmers depended on government publicity and education programmes.