Wukan's dilemma stems from land property rights

By Dang Guoying
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, February 18, 2013
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In 2011, Wukan, an obscure village in southern China's Guangdong Province, made international headlines when its residents staged three waves of large-scale rallies over the course of four months in order to protest against the illegal land grabbing by local officials, corruption and violations of financing and election rules. Significant progress has been achieved since then, but many thoughts about the incident are actually biased.

Just like Wukan, many villages in the nation contain flaws in their democratic election processes, but not all of these have witnessed serious mass incidents. Thus we can assume the problematic democratic election is not the immediate cause that triggers these mass incidents. In fact, Wukan village is quite special.

The village's land property rights relations are unreasonable, and the land's market value has substantially inflated due to urbanization. Additionally, the officials on the village committee feathered their own nests through land transactions. Third, the patriarchal forces there are rather active. Any place bearing the aforementioned three problems would see a mass incident occur sooner or later.

Villagers cast ballots on the Election Day in Wukan Village in Guangdong Province on February 1, 2012. [Guangming Daily]

Villagers cast ballots on the Election Day in Wukan Village in Guangdong Province on February 1, 2012. [Guangming Daily] 

We know that after Guangdong provincial officials held talks with villagers, a new village committee was elected earlier in 2012. However, it seems that the election has not rooted out all the problems with the newly elected finding their work rather burdensome.

Suppose mass incidents occur in one tenth of the country's 580,000 villages and each has to be dealt with by a provincial administration body, where would the country go?

In my opinion, the roots of the Wukan village incident stemmed from its land property rights system. A harmonious land property rights system can be realized if the public land owned by the village, take the road as an example, is owned collectively, while villagers' farming lands are managed under the co-ownership by shares or household ownership.

The use, transaction and pricing of farming lands shall be decided on by the actual users, based on the analysis of risk and opportunity cost rather than the principle of the minority being subordinate to the majority. Once public power was associated with huge land interests, vicious competition would be an inevitable side effect during elections. The ultimate winners would almost certainly abuse their power and line their own pockets.

That is to say, there would be no real democracy as long as relations of the land property rights are obscure. We also need to be alert to the centralization of power which sometimes infringes on any private rights. But not all is lost just yet.

History has shown us that it is possible for an economic system that respects private rights to grow under a centralized system. In this scenario, it would be much easier to promote democracy. It is for this exact reason that I have been arguing the following: "Freedom superior to democracy, or property rights reform superior to democratic political reform."

Now we can better understand why the Wukan village incident is in fact far from over. If no land property rights reform is introduced in the near future, village officials still have to meddle in the affairs, such as the management of farming lands, which should be taken care of by the villagers themselves. If this continues, similar incidents are yet to come.

The author is a researcher with the Rural Development Institute, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The post was first published in Chinese and translated by Fan Junmei.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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