In 1709, the Kangxi Emperor alerted his officials to a ‘serious problem’. ‘It has been nearly 68 years since our dynasty [the Qing] was established. The people have lived in peace and the population has grown by the day, yet the acreage of farmland has not increased accordingly. One person’s land is now farmed by several families. How can they make an adequate living?’, the Emperor asked, and went on to stress: ‘We must find solutions.’footnote1 At the time, China’s population was between 100 and 150 million, the highest it had ever been, but this was only the beginning of a long period of steady demographic growth. A century later, the country had 360 million inhabitants.footnote2 This was an era of general prosperity for Imperial China, yet the problem of supporting a large and growing population with limited farmland posed an unrelenting challenge to Kangxi and his successors.

China today is a vastly different country. Rapid economic growth, urbanization and dramatic industrial expansion over the past four decades have transformed a poor country into the second largest economy in the world. Yet over 40 per cent of the population—about 564 million people—still live in the countryside, with an additional 173 million migrant workers moving back and forth between rural and urban areas.footnote3 In other words, more than 700 million people continue to rely on land for at least part of their livelihood. The challenge confronting Kangxi three hundred years ago is still relevant to contemporary China.

Land in China has historically been the focus of intense political struggles. Dynastic transitions in the imperial era were often catalysed by attempts to consolidate land, leading to peasant rebellions that precipitated the fall of the old regime. In the 20th century, the Communist Party mobilized peasants around the demand for land reform as a prelude to seizing state power in 1949. In recent decades, social tensions have been running high in the countryside, with agricultural taxes and land expropriation the leading causes of unrest. Peasants’ land rights and the direction of the agrarian economy are among the most contentious issues for the party-state today, far more so than urban economic questions. Land problems are closely related to those of food security, environmental sustainability, government revenue and the housing market; the future shape of Chinese society depends in good part on how they are addressed.

This essay will examine four distinct positions that have emerged on the land question in 21st-century China, exploring the key divisions between them—not least on the character of urban development—and five socio-economic scenarios that may result. It will also consider briefly why the Chinese paths from the country to the city may differ from those of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. First, though, it may be useful to sketch the evolution of land policy under the People’s Republic of China—and, in particular, its switchbacks over the past decade.

After 1949, the cpc carried out sweeping land reforms that redistributed nearly half of all farmland—116 million acres—as well as draft animals, farm implements, houses and grains, from landlords to peasants. This effectively eliminated the landlord class, giving rise to a peasant economy in which households became landowner-cultivators.footnote4 But this situation was short-lived: from 1955, the party-state mandated that peasant households should operate collectively, forming cooperatives to which their land ownership and use rights were transferred. Then, in 1958, in an attempt to catch up with industrialized countries and accelerate China’s transition to a communist society, the cpc launched the Great Leap Forward, under which these farming cooperatives were organized into larger units, People’s Communes. The failure of the Great Leap forced the party-state to adjust its rural policies, and in 1961–62 it reorganized these structures into a three-tier hierarchy, consisting of communes, brigades and production teams—the basic unit, comprising twenty to thirty households—which remained in place until the end of the Mao period.

In 1978, the Chinese government launched the Reform Era policies that gradually replaced the planned economy with a market system. The countryside underwent a process of de-collectivization as the new Household Responsibility System was introduced, communes were abolished and collective farms divided up between households, on an equal basis; most villages continued to re-adjust land allocation according to changes in household size (births, deaths and marriages) until the late 1990s.footnote5 Peasant households regained their land-use rights, though land ownership was still held collectively by the village or production team.footnote6 The reforms were a striking economic success: agricultural output grew at over 8 per cent a year between 1978 and 1993, while rural non-farm output expanded even faster, at nearly 23 per cent. By 1993, there were over 24 million rural enterprises—some collective, some private—which together employed 125 million labourers.footnote7 This was due in part to the rural infrastructure and non-farm collective enterprises that had been built up in the Mao period, not to de-collectivization alone; rising grain prices and adoption of new technologies, including chemical fertilizers, also played an important role.

After 1992, Chinese government priorities shifted to the big cities, which were given a gigantic boost by easy credit access and favourable tax and land-use policies, while rural areas were neglected and starved of investment.footnote8 This urban bias of state policy had pernicious effects on the rural economy: industry in the countryside stagnated; vital infrastructure, such as irrigation, was left to crumble; everyday expenses—agricultural taxes, medical fees, school tuition—became a heavy burden for peasant households. This precipitated the beginning of a serious rural crisis and many peasants, despite retaining their land-use rights, were forced to leave their farms to seek work in the city.footnote9 At the same time, government policy switched to permitting, and then actively promoting, the transfer of land-use rights—first between households within the same village and later, with the passing of the Land Administration Law in 1998, between households in different villages. Local governments often quietly supported the transfer of land to agribusiness companies, even though at this stage central government still discouraged the practice.footnote10