Development is Eating into China’s Farms

Fellows Fall 1998

By Rena Singer

June 07, 2009

CUIGE, China, Fall 1998-- While the United States battles suburban sprawl with open-space plans and zoning boards, China has raised the possibility of a more powerful preservation tool -- capital punishment for illegal developers.

The latest in a series of draconian laws limiting development threatens the death penalty for those who build on farmland without getting an extensive and difficult series of permits.

No one is known to have been executed in the five months since the law was passed, and it may be a rhetorical flourish rather than a serious threat. But it demonstrates the government's concern.

Each year, China loses more than enough farmland to cover the state of Rhode Island, about twice as much as the United States loses. It is a sobering figure given the fact that China has less farmland to begin with and about four times as many people as the United States.

The math is simple and alarming. Foreign experts warn that if the land loss continues, China may not be able to feed its 1.2 billion people.

"Our basic position is that we cannot lose any more farmland," said Ye Zhenqin, a Ministry of Agriculture official. "We have so many people. To support them, to be self-sufficient, on less land is impossible." China does not have American-style suburban sprawl. Fast-food drive-throughs, strip malls and suburban developments are not springing from rice paddies here.

Instead, the culprit is modern infrastructure. China is constructing highways and factories, building schools where there were none, and providing housing and recreation for its citizens.

And they take space. The result can be seen on the fringes of ever-expanding Beijing. Zhang Shulan used to farm her rice paddies in the ramshackle village of Cuige -- a two-hour walk from the edge of the capital. Now city buses zoom past her dusty courtyard.

Beijing first encroached on Cuige about two years ago when a paper factory, packing company and dancing school occupied the communal thrashing ground and 25 of the village's most fertile acres. Last year a government office took 3 acres. A nail factory set up shop on 7 acres this year.

All but 10 of the 90 families in her village have since abandoned farming. Zhang reluctantly quit tilling the soil last year. She now works in a paper factory, making five times her farming income.

Zhang figures that within a few years, Cuige's small single-story mud-brick homes, and the last of its rice paddies, will meet the bulldozer to clear room for more Beijing high-rises.

"Then we'll live high in the city," said Zhang. "We won't know our neighbors, like real city people. We'll be modern."

China's building boom is similar to the one the United States experienced in the 1950s and 1960s.

"We [ Americans ] didn't worry about it then, in part because we have so much farmland," said Albert J. Nyberg, an agricultural economist and China specialist with the World Bank. "China doesn't. China needs to worry."

China began its campaign to protect farmland 15 years ago with a ban on the new golf courses and theme parks already eating away at fields of grain on China's nouveau riche east coast. The government also outlawed new home construction on arable land and required local and provincial approval for all large development. Also, the national government warned local leaders, who control land use in this communist country, not to participate in land speculation or sell communal farmland to their friends.

The land loss continued nonetheless -- in part because local leaders, and sometimes entire villages, stand to make a great deal of money by developing their land, and in part because the Chinese government must continue building this country's infrastructure. And that means destroying farmland.

To discourage profiteering and halt all but the most essential construction projects, the Chinese government in March 1997 made "sabotaging land resources" a criminal offense and charged local officials who signed off on unnecessary development with "dereliction of duty."

Later that year the government instituted even more aggressive policies. It began encouraging the demolition of buildings constructed without proper approval. It also started a "village consolidation" program, whereby villages on fertile plains are relocated and villages deemed too spread out are destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller scale, to recover farmland.

The Chinese press has reported that Shandong province has consolidated 232 villages to recover 181,133 acres of farmland. Jiangsu province announced plans to merge 289,000 villages into 20,300, to recover 49,400 acres of farmland. Anhui province demolished tens of thousands of wasteful homes to recover 65,866 acres of farmland. In September, a law was passed designating 80 percent of China's arable land "fundamental farmland." These parcels, the most productive farms in the country, could now only be developed with local, county, provincial and State Council approval. That is roughly the equivalent of requiring American developers to obtain township, county, state and congressional approval for their subdivisions.

According to the new law, farmland "saboteurs," the developers who build on such farmland without proper authorization, could be subject to the death penalty. "Yes, now we have the death penalty for violators," said Ye, the agricultural official. "Maybe now we can increase farmland, but generally new farmland is not as good as the old."

No prosecutions under the new law have been made public so far, however.

Despite its efforts, the government expects the rush to pave China's rice paddies to continue. In fact, a Chinese government report indicates that the size of China's urban areas will double by 2010.