The central government should have a nationwide land use registration and supervision system to curb rampant reclamation of land from farmers by local and grass-roots governments, experts say.
Jiang Zhongyi, a senior researcher with the Agricultural Economic Research Center under the Ministry of Agriculture, said data collected should include the size, quality rating and owner of every single piece of land in the country.
"The central government should send special staff with enough training to supervise changes to land use contracts, and whether the changes are legal or illegal," said Jiang.
Jiang said the system can stop local governments from illegally reclaiming lands from farmers.
Some local governments take back land from farmers for business purposes but fail to report the change of ownership to provincial or central governments.
They avoid doing so to circumvent the tight restrictions the central government has on the reclamation of arable land for business use.
The nation now has 128 million hectares of arable land, feeding a population of around 1.3 billion.
Jiang's suggestion was supported by a group of officials and experts contacted by China Daily. The call for change comes a week before the Rural Land Contract Law, which was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress last August, and will take effect on March 1.
"The law targets the rampant abuse of local administrative power in breaches of rural land contracts but more concrete measures are needed to supervise enforcement," said Li Ping from the Beijing Representative Office of the United States-based Rural Development Institute.
Li said the system suggested by Jiang would help enforce the law and protect the rights of farmers to use contracted land.
The new law affirms farmers' land use rights.
Under a system which began in 1978, each household signs a contract with local authorities for the right to grow crops on a certain amount of land, depending on the size of the family.
The law ensures that farmers' rights to use land under contract will not change for at least 30 years. It stipulates the term of a contract is 30 years for arable land, 30 to 50 years for grassland and 30 to 70 years for woodland.
More importantly, the law defines a contract right as a property right, which means under the current collective ownership system in China, farmers can lease, transfer or exchange land they contract within the contract term.
Experts say that these two reforms are essential to accelerating the development of China's rural areas.
"The farmers who are reluctant to work on the land can turn their burden over to those who like farming, and it can help develop large-scale production and accelerate urbanization," said Xiang Zhaolun, office director of the State Council's Finance and Economy Development Leading Group.
However, some local officials have arbitrarily shortened the term of land contracts and reallocated land use rights without farmers' consent.
It must be stressed that only farmers can make the decision to transfer land use rights. Rural officials can only provide necessary services to facilitate such transfers, said Xiang.
"Interference with administrative orders should be forbidden and punished," said Xiang.
Xiang said that transferring farmland use rights to non-farming entities and individuals should be curbed.
"Before the rural labor force is shifted to non-agricultural sectors, the large-scale concentration of farmland may lead to employment problems," said Xiang.
(China Daily February 24, 2003)