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China’s Land System and Population Birth


Liu Shouying

In China’s development during the past 50 years, a number of significant policy errors have caused serious imbalances between population growth and land resources. Constrained by the fact that the potential of enlarging the stock of cultivated land was about to be exhausted, China had no other choice but to enforce compulsory policies to control population growth in order to relieve the pressure on the demand for land. This became the basic policy mechanism in the past 20 years in resolving the problem of population growth and development. After relieving to some extent the population pressure on the scarce land resources through such compulsory control measures, China is searching for a new breakthrough regarding its population and development policy. An important aspect in this regard is to find policies in the new era that will control population growth more effectively. For instance, to restrain people’s desire for procreation by deepening the reform of the land system. However, great care must be taken when analyzing the impact on population growth resulting from arrangements made in the land system because land system has a unique character and China’s population issue is complicated.

I. China’s collective land ownership system:

An endogenous mechanism stimulating population growth

China’s traditional collective land ownership system took shape through a series of frequent compulsory institutional changes. Such a system thoroughly changed the traditional farming system which took individual peasant families as basic units and which had been in existence for several thousand years among the Chinese peasants. The collective system turned the small household peasants, who used to have independent production and management decision rights, into members of collective production teams. After becoming members of production teams or “members of collectives”, the farm work they did was assigned them by the production teams. Furthermore, the gains of peasants as laborers and even the livelihood of every family member were gotten from the collective.

Under a typical collective production team, a family can get an additional share of grain ration with the arrival of a new family member. As a result of the egalitarian distribution of grain ration, the cost of a new family member was not entirely borne by the family itself but equally distributed among the population of the entire village. In this sense, every laborer capable of bearing offspring would on the one hand rely on his or her age advantage to work for work points; and on the other hand also to give birth to more children, so as to obtain more grain ration. Therefore, such a welfare distribution system in and by itself provides the incentive to bear more children.

The farmland system reform of the 1980s continued to bear the fundamental framework of the land ownership in the collectivization era, it could not but be manipulated by the interest structure formed during that era. One of the central issues in the present reform is how to determine who in a village should be in possession of how much rights and benefits in terms of the collectively owned land. The difficulties involved in such an undertaking stem on the one hand from finding ways to determine how much rights and benefits each member enjoyed under the former collective system. At the same time a comprehensive consideration must be made regarding the possible changes that might appear in the community’s present resources endowment and the relationship between population and land.

Three possible arrangements exist in determining the amount of rights and benefits of each member.

1. Equally distribute the land among the entire population of the village;

2. Equally distribute “grain ration land” among the population and distribute the “responsibility land” among the laborers; and

3. Equally distribute all the land among the laborers.

It is not hard to conclude that from the point of view of peasant families all three arrangements of the redistribution of land rights and benefits mentioned above are tinged with egalitarianism that had been widely commented on. However, in actuality under the three right-and-benefit arrangements mentioned above the amount of rights and benefits of each village member differs. Under the first arrangement it can be said that every village member enjoys an absolutely equal amount of land rights and benefits. Under the second arrangement every village member enjoys an absolutely equal amount of land rights and benefit only with regard to the “grain ration land.” When it comes to the “responsibility land” only those of the working age enjoy an absolutely equal amount of land rights and benefit. Under the third arrangement only those village members that are of the working age have land rights and benefits. It is obvious from the above that the degree of equal distribution of the above-mentioned three arrangements decreases progressively in their given order. To analyze the subtle differences of such distribution of rights and interests in the course of reform, we cite data generated by the Land Issue Group of the Development Research Center of the State Council. Table 1 shows the results of an investigation involving 80 villages. It can be seen from this table that those villages with relatively higher per capita net incomes or with better land endowment prefer less egalitarian arrangements; and those with lower per capita net incomes prefer arrangements that lean towards absolute equal sharing. For instance, 26.70% of the villages in Zhejiang Province chose the third arrangement, whereas all villages in Henan Province chose the first arrangement. The ratio of villages in Jiangxi Province which chose the first arrangement was also higher than that of Zhejiang and Jilin provinces. Furthermore, there were 3.30% and 3.80% of villages in Zhejiang and Jilin respectively which chose a kind of arrangement other than the three mentioned above. The arrangement they chose was to give the contracted land in total to specialized households for management. Similarly, differences appeared when questioned whether, at the time of fixing farm output quotas on the household basis, consideration was given to adjustment of contract rights of village members when families changed in size. Sample villages reacted quite differently. Only a small number of villages in Zhejiang and Jilin chose redistribution after family sizes changed (10% and 8% respectively). Most of the villages chose not to undergo redistribution (40% and 44% respectively). In sharp contrast was a strong desire for land redistribution in Henan and Jiangxi. Fifty percent and 63.60% of villages respectively chose to redistribute land after changes occurred in family size. The percentage that chose not to redistribute land was very low: 0% and 18.20% respectively.


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