Whose soil is it anyway?

If rural land reform happens, Chongqing is likely to lead the way

Whose soil is it anyway?

All the fun of the farm, QQ style

Divorce is often a messy process, but it took a new twist when a young couple from Henan province entered the courtroom. Previously they had met and married within a week, thanks to a shared devotion to the online game, QQ Farm.

Both were expert QQ farmers (players grow crops) and applied for a joint account to play the game. Wang and Li brought with them a considerable tally of virtual assets, worth millions of yuan in the game. The hope was that their merger would not just be matrimonial but also make them powerful force in the highly competitive world of virtual vegetables (QQ Farm is currently played by 17 million Chinese).

But it turned out the pair liked the farm game much more than they did each other. They soon filed for divorce, and asked the court to divide up their ‘assets’ on the online game. According to the Dahe Daily, the court rejected their suit, stating there was no provision in the law for dividing virtual ‘property’ owned in games like QQ Farm.

Wang and Li’s messy marriage warrants mention for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s the pastoral appeal of the game itself. China used to be an agricultural society – as recently as 1955 around 84% were farmers – but with mass urbanisation that has changed dramatically. The closest many young people get to the rural idyll these days is through internet-based games like QQ’s and Happy Farm (see WiC28). And with an additional 300 million farmers forecast to move from the countryside to the cities in the next 20 years ever more Chinese will lose touch with the soil.

However, the case’s focus on rural property is also timely. Wang and Li are arguing over virtual ownership of farms; and in the real world the matter of who owns farms has also become a hot topic. This requires some historical context:that’s because since 1949, all agricultural land has been collectively-owned. However, in the wake of some catastrophic experiments with communes in the 1950s, Deng Xiaoping later decided to parcel out land to individual farmers. They each got a land ‘entitlement’, but they could not (and still cannot) sell the land that they farm because legally-speaking they don’t own it.

This has proved a thorny issue, points out the Economist magazine. “Rural land entitlements prevent the consolidation of tiny plots into more efficient farms.” It notes that the municipality of Chongqing has been designated as an experimental zone to trial solutions.

For example, in late 2008 a land exchange institute was established to trade ‘land tickets’. Not unlike the principle of trading carbon credits, these compensate villages which cut the amount of land used for housing or factories and convert it back to agricultural usage. These credits can then be sold to property developers who want to build on farmland elsewhere in Chongqing city. So far Rmb1.9 billion ($278 million) has been raised in 11 auctions of credits, redistributing wealth to the villages. Clearly this doesn’t resolve land ownership issues, but it does recognise villagers’ economic interest in property.

Chongqing is also at the vanguard of a scheme to issue rural households with certificates identifying the parcels of land that they farm. Officials will finish handing out these certificates next year. This is a significant measure, writes the Economist. “These, potentially, could be used as proof of ownership should the government eventually decide to encourage a rural property market.” Such certificates could eventually allow farms to be mortgaged or sold. That would accelerate the transition towards industrial-scale farming.

In a speech last week Chongqing’s leader, Bo Xilai, made evident how seriously he views rural policy. “Our Party was rooted in the vast rural area, and only with thousands of farmers continuously joining us could the Chinese revolution win a victory.” The rural areas are no less critical today, says Bo: “In order to understand China’s national conditions, we must first understand the countryside, as well as the farmers.”

The speech was being made to new graduates who are being sent to work in Chongqing’s outlying villages.

The fact that Bo made the speech makes it all the more significant. His father, Bo Yibo was one of the Party’s ‘Eight Immortals’ and the younger Bo is expected to be given a place on the Politburo in 2012, when the country gets a new president and prime minister. What he learns from his experiments in Chongqing will thus be taken to Beijing, and could define the nation’s policy on rural land reform. Little wonder, then, that he told the eager young bureaucrats that the time they will spend in the villages will give them “an experience that is not inferior to what they might learn on postgraduate courses.” And better than playing QQ Farm, perhaps.

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