Land-seizure rows the main cause of rural unrest in '06
Josephine Ma in Beijing
But official says China's constitution rules out privatisation
Disputes over seizures of land by mainland authorities were the main cause of rural unrest last year, but a top official in charge of rural policies yesterday ruled out any possibility that land on the mainland would be privatised.
Chen Xiwen, a vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, said after a press conference yesterday that land disputes accounted for half of the rural unrest in China last year.
Misappropriation and embezzlement of public funds and assets by grass-roots cadres accounted for about 30 per cent of cases, Mr Chen said, with the remaining 20 per cent involving protests against environmental pollution.
Mr Chen said rural unrest had dropped significantly last year and tension between farmers and local cadres had eased after the scrapping of the agricultural tax and the granting of direct subsidies to farmers. He declined to specify the number of incidents of rural unrest last year but said they made up less than half of all social unrest on the mainland last year.
Vice-Minister of Social Security Liu Jinguo told a national conference on public order earlier this month that incidents of social unrest had dropped by 16.5 per cent last year.
Although land acquisitions by officials were a main source of tension in the countryside, Mr Chen said privatising rural land - a suggestion that is receiving increasing support from scholars - was not an option.
'As for land privatisation, we don't see any prospect at all in China for the time being,' he said. 'And this is not decided by the policies of the party or the government because the constitution of our country stipulates that there is no privatisation in China's land policies.'
Instead, the government has offered other remedies to protect farmland such as imposing quotas on the amount of rural land that provincial governments can convert for non-agricultural use as well as raising the compensation that needs to be paid.
Speaking at a press briefing on the 'No1 document' on new rural policy released on Monday, Mr Chen said farmers' incomes rose more rapidly last year, climbing by 332 yuan or 10.1 per cent to 3,587 yuan despite frequent natural disasters.
But Mr Chen expressed worries that some local officials had turned the 'new socialist countryside' campaign launched by the government into village facelift projects.
He said building new houses and roads in low-income villages would only increase the financial burden on farmers and the government had highlighted modern agricultural industry as the theme of this year's blueprint to correct local officials' attitudes.
The circular also pledges a continuous increase in central government investment in the countryside and the development of financial institutions in rural areas to solve the shortage of funding for rural businesses.