Tag Archives: farmers

A distinctive social class


Farmers enjoying tea at a local teahouse in Yongchuan district (永川区), Chongqing. Photo taken during a field trip to Chongqing in November 2013.

The dual citizenship and property system in China has forged the collective rural identity. Having a rural hukou provides some benefits, especially concerning rural land rights. However, this rural, or farmer’s, identity constitutes a barrier for many migrant workers who have been living in urban areas, some for decades. In many places, the hukou has been relaxed, but in large cities like Beijing or Shanghai restrictions are still in place. There is little doubt that the lack of a local resident permit presents an obstacle for integration and identification with the host city. Migrant workers continue to have a preference for marrying their peers from the country. Very often, one can hear them making plans to go back to their hometowns after they retired. But, what seems more peculiar to an outsider is to learn that many still call or consider themselves farmers. According to the (English) dictionary, a farmer is a person who owns or manages a farm, or cultivates land. However, in China it has a very different meaning: it is a social class. It refers equally to those who engage in the farming industry and those who work in the city but possess a rural residence permit. Actually, the (usual) Chinese name for migrant workers does not contain the word “migrant” but “farmer” (nongmin-gong – 农民工). In fact, it also includes the fellows who joyfully sip at their tea in the photo, but whose industry is alien to the writer.

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

More Posts

China releases plan to incorporate farmers into cities

The government plans to move 215 millions people from rural areas to cities by the year 2025. One of the results awaited by the Chinese government by sustaining urbanisation is the creation of a consumer culture driving Chinese economy and raising standard living. But this plan will generate side effects concerning the integration of farmers moved into cities such as the lack of infrastructures (transports, houses, schools, hospitals) and the restricted access to public services for the people who are still registered as rural residents while they live since many years in the city. 

“Currently, nearly 54 percent of Chinese live in cities, but only 36 percent are registered as urban residents (…). The plan calls for integrating 100 million of these second-class citizens, so that by 2020, 60 percent of Chinese should be living in cities, with 45 percent enjoying full urban status, the plan states”.

According to urban planners, to make this plan effective, the government will have to carry out two complementaries reforms which are taxe reform, in order  to give more financial capacity to local authorities for investing into infrastructures, and farmers’ land rights reform, in order to give them the choice to keep or live their land. Two major reforms still however in the planning phase, according to Tao Ran, the acting director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy


For more information, read the full article: Johnson, Ian. China Releases Plan to Incorporate Farmers Into CitiesThe New York Times, March 17, 2014. [Retrieved March 19, 2014].

Oriane Pillet

Intern at the CNRS, UrbaChina project. M.A. in urban local development (IEDES, Paris); M.A. in international development studies (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris - Utrecht University); B.A. in geography and law (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris).

More Posts

A well deserved break

A well deserved break, Elosua Miguel

A 104 year-old woman playing pai gow (paijiu – 牌九) with her friends in Kaiping, Guangdong, May 2013. Living standards in the Chinese countryside are improving steadily. The elderly are granted pensions (yanglao baoxian − 养老保险), provided there are no children to take care of them (zinü fuyang – 子女抚养). The monthly allocation is meagre, between 80 to 90 yuan per month, depending on the age of the beneficiary. In the province of Guangdong many villagers have been able to benefit from the economic development by an urbanisation model that is unique in many respects. By converting collectives into property companies that develop industrial zones (and residential property), farmers are able to generate profits and receive dividends in return. These ladies enjoy now a placid life and may spend more than three hours a day chatting and playing this game.

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

More Posts

Beijing’s urban farmers

Last week, Ai Chi-Han wrote a small article on community gardens in France. Similar trends can also be found in China, where urban dwellers are looking for healthier food. Small markets are now offering organic vegetables.

Reuters News, July 21, 2013

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

More Posts

Farmers carrying rice straw

Farmers carrying rice straw on a pole at the end of September in Chengkan, Huangshan. This photo was taken just before the sale that took place by the rice paddies. Once the sacred grain has been taken away, the straw can be used for thatching, packing, or weaving. Shoulder poles are usually made of bamboo and can bear loads of more than 50 kilos, something that is not uncommon here.

Rice, along with tea, continues to be the main agricultural crop in the Huangshan region. An area of about 40 thousand hectares is used for growing rice (more than 30 per cent of the region’s total area devoted to crops).1

Urbanization poses a threat to the land that is devoted to agriculture. On the one hand, using arable land for land development has been a common feature of the Chinese countryside over the last decades; in Huangshan district alone, the urbanised area has expanded by 60 per cent during the last five years2. On the other hand, migration to cities, leaving the land idle, often results in land impoverishment or loss. To counter this trend, incentives are often proposed to foster intensive farming.

Sufficient food supplies have been an ongoing preoccupation for Beijing. We are often reminded that China counts 22 per cent of the world’s population with only 7 per cent of the arable land, making land all the more precious. This issue played a pivotal role in the creation of the double property system at the outset of the economic reform. However, according to official statistics, in the short period from 1996 to 2004, 6.6 per cent of the total arable was lost3. Even though the Land Management Law was revised in 1998 to restrict the use of arable land for commercial, residential, or industrial purposes (prohibiting the use of collective land for developments, and establishing land appropriations as the standard procedure for this purpose thereafter), official statistics from 2005 show that this law was violated more than a million times4. A satellite surveillance system is now in place to control land misuse.

This clearly reflects the ongoing conflict of interest between central and local governments, the chief concern of the former being to ensure sufficient food supplies and social harmony, while the ultimate goal of the latter is to manage their finances. This conflict of interests, or game as it has been called (boyi)5 , became more apparent after the important fiscal reform of 1994, since local coffers became much more dependent on land development than before. The new tax system left little room for local governments to legitimately increase income and land finance became a secondary source of revenue.

Using cheap land expropriated from local farmers to finance local development has been common in China for more than two decades and is a topic that causes a great deal of public concern (and social unrest). Land is the key to understanding local finance and may be regarded as the main contributor to development during the reform era.

The losers of this so-called game are the farmers. Even though the Constitution attributes ownership of rural land to them, or more precisely to the sui generis collective, which in theory represents their interests, the collective is not allowed to transfer “its land”, to modify its use, or to benefit from an eventual modification carried out by the local government, usually by means of the urban plan. Should this plan include a conversion of agricultural land into urban land, this is done through expropriation, and ownership of the land that has been reclaimed passes from the collective to the State (local government). Inclusion in the urban plan alone is regarded as a declaration of public interest, justifying the appropriation of the land (something that is not uncommon in Western countries either). The land’s inherent value is ready then to be exploited by its new owner. As a result, farmers not only lose their land, but also their “safety net”, becoming what is known as the “three withouts”, namely those without land, without social security and without education. According to official sources, it is estimated that between 1990 and 2002, 66 million farmers lost their land.6

In order to rectify this imbalance and reduce the income gap that the double system of property rights has produced, the legal circulation of land-use rights allocated to farmers by the collective have finally received the green light from the central government. Old phantoms have been surmounted, and the flow of surplus rural labourers towards the cities is no longer an impediment to providing sufficient food supplies and, as was feared for a long time during the 20th century, will not necessarily lead to the concentration of land in the hands of a few. At least it will not present a problem since the collective retains ownership. Moving to small and medium cities is now desirable, specially to those urbanised to finance local development and not to respond to population needs, and farmers are given incentives to become citizens and give up their rural hukou.

However, for this to be fully implemented, the market for land-use rights may need to have more appeal for its participants. The circulation of land-use rights is not new in the Chinese countryside, although before 2008 it was illegal. Most farmers are still reluctant to transfer their land-use rights because they still encounter obstacles that prevent them from becoming first class citizens. Until a proper social protection system is created for them, their roots will be in the countryside. In addition, since land use cannot be modified, there is little margin for increasing its value. Land use restrictions are necessary to avoid the loss of arable land, but what is perhaps needed is for farmers to become the ultimate beneficiaries when their rural land is transformed into urban land. This would not only put an end to the expropriation game, but would also allow farmers to become citizens automatically, entitled to make a fair enough profit to motivate them to break their attachment to the land.

  1. Huangshanshi 2010 nian guomin jingji he shehui fazhan tongji gongbao (Huangshan statistics bulletin on national economy and society development. 2010) 黄山市2010年国民经济和社会发展统计公报 Retrieved from http://www.huangshan.gov.cn/zjhs/ShowDetails.Aspx?ArticleId=35806 Last accessed 10 December 2012 []
  2. Huangshan zhengfu 1 hao baogao (Government of Huangshan, Report number 1, 2012) 黄山政府1号报告 2012 []
  3. Wang Xiao Gang 王小刚(2009)Zhongguo nongcun tudi zhengshou: wenti, yuanyin ji gaige fangxiang. Lanzhou shangxueyuan xuebao. 5, 2009(Expropriations on China’s rural land: problem, causes, and reform direction. Lanzhou business school journal. 5, 2009) 中国农村土地征收:问题,原因及改革方向。兰州商学院学报。5, 2009 []
  4. He Bochuan (2007) La Crise Agraire en Chine. Etudes Rurales. January-June 2007 []
  5. Zhang Shu Guang 张曙光(2011)Boyi: zhengquan de xifen, shishi he baohu. Beijing: shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe (Game: the segmentation, implementation and protection of land rights. Beijing: Social Sciences Academics Press, 2011 博弈: 政权的细分,实施和保护。北京:社会科学文献出版社 []
  6. Li (2008) Hu Jintao’s Land Reform: Ambition, Ambiguity, and Anxiety. China Leadership Monitor. 27 []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

More Posts

Back to the village

Retour au village, Elosua Miguel

This photo was taken in Cheng Kan, Anhui, on the 28th of September, 2012 at dusk.

The end of September is a period that is particularly busy in this area. Farmers spend the day harvesting rice crops, most of which are sold on the spot. They also hang corn from balconies to dry.  Fields are well irrigated by the Longxi River. The town has an elaborated layout based on the principles of fengshui. It reflects the socioeconomic structure of the Ming and Qing dynasties, when wealthy Hui merchants (Huishang) returned to their hometowns and left their legacy printed on the streets and buildings.

This will probably be the last generation of farmers in the Huang Shan area to cultivate the land in the traditional ways. The city is flourishing again with the arrival of tourists, who flock to the Yellow Mountain, the area’s main attraction. Although the younger generations benefit from the tourist boom, by working in the service sector, this is not the case for the older ones, whose lives are alien to this transformation. Apart from tourism, new regulations dealing with land rights guarantee longer and more stable tenures, thus setting up a framework for the establishment of larger farms and the mechanization of agriculture. The aim of the prohibition concerning land readjustments during the tenure period is to stimulate long-term investments in the land, as well as to increase the number of leases. While this may be a likely scenario in Huang Shan, it may not be the case in other rural areas of China, where there is no tourist industry. In many places, farmers still advocate land readjustments in cases involving changes in demographics, for example, or to recover land leased out after agricultural taxes were abolished and therefore no longer representing a heavy financial burden. This has led to a failure to enforce the law in some cases, causing numerous conflicts and paving the way for new sources of grievance for farmers. If land readjustments hoped to ensure equal land distribution among farmers, the prohibition to readjust during the 30 years of tenure will undoubtedly put an end to this socialist aspiration. Perhaps this situation simply reflects the presence of two different social realities in rural China:  those who benefit from economic development and embrace free market policies, and those who are left behind and still believe in the socialist principles they were brought up with.

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

More Posts