Increasing numbers of people are moving to China's cities, but that does not mean farmers have any less need for land. With a population of more than 1.3 billion, agricultural output needs to be maintained and strengthened. Affluence is accompanied by changing and more sophisticated tastes, so farms need to diversify and adapt. Privatisation of rural land is the best way for the nation to meet demands and expectations.
There is a powerful resistance to such an idea among some in the Communist Party. The mainland economy has taken on many capitalist characteristics, but there is a clique of party leaders that sticks firmly to ideological principles when it comes to land ownership. Under Mao Zedong, rural land was collectivised, taking away from farmers the ability to mortgage or sell plots that had been in families for centuries. But Premier Wen Jiabao has given hope, vowing that the government should respect and protect their rights, allowing them to do what they wish with the land should they move to the cities.
A poorly thought out system of representation and corruption is causing rural discontent. Farmers can elect their own village chiefs, but the government chooses the party secretary, who has the final say on decisions. This has led to village leaders signing away land without farmers' approval or knowledge. Such practices, often to enrich corrupt officials or give advantages to favoured companies and individuals, are the reason for the growing slew of protests.
The problem was typified recently in the Guangdong village of Wukan, where farmers had for months been protesting against alleged illegal land grabs. Provincial authorities ordered an investigation which concluded that former village party head Xue Chang and other officials had sold farmland without consent and taken bribes. Villagers, who had complained that up to 450 hectares had been stolen, scored another victory on Sunday when Lin Zuluan, one of the protest leaders, was appointed the village's new party secretary.
Provincial authorities' handling of the case is a model for other governments to follow, although it would be better if such action is taken before villagers feel the need to protest. As urbanisation increases and the demand for expansion of cities and towns grows, pressure to use rural land will rise. The thirst for wealth and the possibility that officials will sway from serving the people to helping themselves will also increase. Ultimately, granting farmers ownership of land is the solution. Not all rural people want to live in cities and being able to mortgage land would allow them to obtain much-needed agricultural equipment and fertilisers. Giving a closer affinity to the land through ownership would improve productivity and ensure food demands are better met. Coupled with reform of the hukou household registration system, it is an appropriate step to further development.