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By Sam Wardle : BIO| 06 Sep 2020
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In October 1995, a Chinese peasant named Li Xinwen traveled to Beijing from rural Anhui province. After being forced from his land to make way for an expansion of the local bureaucracy, he sought justice from the central authority. He did not find it. Instead, his property was taken and he subsequently jumped into traffic in an unsuccessful attempt to end his life. On the morning of October 5, he captured the attention of the Party Central Committee by leaping from the top of the Petitions and Appeals Office. This time, he was successful.

Under China's local bureaucracies, what little property rights peasants possess are often not respected. Legally, peasant farmers are granted 30-year leases and given full ownership of their homes (not the land beneath them), but those arrangements are not stable. Land grabs, like that of which Li Xinwen was a victim, are common. An estimated 40 million peasants have been displaced in the last decade or so.

Though rural per capita income has doubled since 1990, it has tripled in cities. Speeding up this disparity was the Party's decision in the late '90s to allow property rights for city-dwellers. This encouraged a flight to cities.

Urban, middle-class owners of apartments now have a strong motivation to push for a more transparent, working legal system. (Included in such demands, surprisingly, have been the early signs of grassroots environmental activism.)

For the wealthy, property rights present another kind of motivation -- to generate more wealth. Gated communities, like the Bi Gui Yuan (Country Garden) chain in Guangdong province -- where ornate mansions over look manicured gardens -- are springing up in the country's richer provinces.

The story in the countryside is far different. The income gap has widened further since the adoption of property rights in the cities. Recent economic data indicate that farmers have a difficult fall and winter ahead of them.

When the People's Congress convenes for its 17th session in 2007 -- a major event, considering it typically happens once every five years - there is an opportunity for the plight of the peasantry to be foremost on the minds of China's leaders. Though much of that usually weeklong event involves power plays and appointments, it is also the time when the general consensus for what Party policy will be for the next five years is reached. And this will come at a moment when Party expressions of concern for the farmers are coming from many directions.

Both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have stated that rural concerns are among their top priorities. A recent report from the PRC Ministry of Commerce highlighted the growing income disparity between rural and urban Chinese, calling it "a manifestation of abnormal and unfair income distribution" in surprisingly blunt language. Hu's "Harmonious Society" is an obvious call for greater equality among urban and rural residents. The question is: will the Chinese focus on redistribution, or on giving property rights to rural areas?

Li Jian Hua, first secretary of the press for the Chinese Consulate in the United States, painted a rosy picture for me on China's commitment to property rights for farmers specifically, and for the life of the peasant overall.

"The Chinese government has been working on [property rights]," Li said. "The farmers enjoy more rights, have more options, and can make more money to make their lives better" than in the past.

Many China-watchers say that the real problem isn't the government's concern for these issues, though. It is the scale of the problem.

This past June saw the release of Will the Boat Sink the Water, a frank, dry book of case studies of corruption and crimes perpetrated on the peasantry. According to Richard McGregor, book reviewer for the Financial Times:

"In Chen and Wu's story, Beijing comes across as a centre of relatively enlightened officialdom, struggling not just to impose its will on the rowdy countryside but even to find out what is happening there in the first place."

A recent Economist special report advocated for property rights for China's farmers, but it didn't sufficiently tackle the issue of corruption. Before a successful shift to a "property-owning non-democracy" (in The Economist's words) can be made, the Party must first tackle the rampant corruption that makes ownership obsolete.

Another concern for the Party is the significant loss of control that granting property rights would perpetuate. Market-based reforms would surely improve peasants' lots, but might also seriously diminish the Party's overall control of rural residents. And in the middle of a mass migration that has already seen 100 million move to cities, and could see 150 million more in the years ahead, that is not a consideration the Party will take lightly.

The Chinese leadership should remember the benefits that its earlier risks in urban property rights have yielded when the 17th Congress convenes next year. For reform in the China, rural property rights are as good a place to start as any.

Sam Wardle is a writer and editor living in the mountains of North Carolina.

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