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Behind the Leftist- Rightist Divergence on Agricultural Land Reforms in China

Authors: Wenjing Jiang*, Clark University
Topics: Social Theory, Rural Geography
Keywords: property rights, agrarian reform, Left-Right politics, rural China
Session Type: Paper
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China’s rural land reform policies have long been the battlefront between Marxists, neoclassical economists and the new institutionalists. Through grounded analysis of legitimate rights and claims for rightfulness, this paper re-interprets the divergent visions and positions behind the agrarian transformation in China. Using the emerging transfers of agricultural land use rights as an example, the paper highlights the need for unpacking the normative claims around landed property rights.

For decades, rights to agricultural land in China have been changing hands rapidly. Under current rules, local authorities formally subcontract collective-owned land to villagers, and only the use rights to such land can be transferred. In 2013, transfers of agricultural land use rights (“agricultural land transfer”, or ALT below), forbidden by law until 1984, were incorporated into China’s development policies and implemented nationwide. Drawing upon a multi-scalar case study in Chengdu in Southwest China, I argue that the ongoing efforts to rebuild China’s countryside through ALT, are not simply a top-down process, but are initiated by various actors, based on the divergent and competing visions of what a desirable future looks like, and of what rights villagers have. The Left-Right debates around land rights then become multiple questions, of who has access to land, who has the rights to give up their land and migrate to the city, who is qualified to farm and what is (un)just. Normative answers to these questions grow out of everyday politics, conflicts and complaints, but not of laws or theories.

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