China's Land Grab Epidemic Is Causing More Wukan-Style Protests

Every year, local governments appropriate land from 4 million rural Chinese.

Wukan Feb8 p.jpg

Residents of Wukan rally against land grabs and other forms of corruption / Reuters

A few days ago, the Global Times posted a brief opinion piece that questioned the West's preoccupation with the Wukan village uprising last year and concluded: "China cannot be understood by focusing on the small details, something Western media would do well to appreciate."

Despite this sage advice, I've always liked details and found myself captivated by a just-released survey of 1,791 Chinese farming households across 17 provinces. Conducted by Landesa Rural Development Institute, Renmin University, and Michigan State University, the survey explored issues surrounding rural land use and retention. The survey is especially valuable because it has been conducted five times since 1999, thereby providing a sense for whether conditions have been improving or worsening over time.

Some of the most striking findings:

  • There has been a steady increase since 2005 in the number of "land takings" or compulsory state acquisitions, and about 43 percent of the villages surveyed have been subjected to such land takings over the past decade.
  • The mean compensation that the local government paid to the farmers was approximately $17, 850 per acre. When it was resold by local authorities, mostly to commercial property developers, the mean price was $740,000 per acre.
  • When farmers are relocated or "urbanized," only a bit more than twenty percent gained an urban hukou or registration; 13.9 percent received urban social security coverage; 9.4 percent received medical insurance; and only 21.4 percent had access to schools for their children.
  • Every year, local governments appropriate land from 4 million rural Chinese.

None of this is a good deal for the farmers, and the result, according to Chinese researchers, is that land conflicts are the source of 65 percent of the more than 180,000 protests China experiences annually.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who never misses an opportunity these days to push for a bit more political reform, made the issue of farmers' rights a central point in his early February 2012 visit to Guangdong. He noted, "The root of the problem is that the land is the property of the farmers, but this right has not been protected in the way it should be." Wen also noted, "We must certainly protect the voting rights of farmers, and be unwavering in properly carrying out village self-governance and direct election of village committees."

Despite Wen's best efforts, without a real system of official accountability or the rule of law, there seems little likelihood that farmers will gain the upper hand any time soon. The Global Times notwithstanding, the details of the survey data say it all: more Wukans are on China's horizon.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.

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Elizabeth Economy is a senior fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and blogs for "Asia Unbound."

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