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China's Land (re)Distribution and Economic Development1

Xiaopeng Luo, Zuhui Huang and Wenrong Qian2

China Academy for Rural Development, Zhejiang University

Paper presented at - "Land Redistribution: Towards a Common Vision, Regional Course, Southern Africa, 9-13 July 2007"

SARPN acknowledges the World Bank as a source of this paper:
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This essay addresses the issues of how land redistribution was evolved and its effects on the economic development in contemporary China, particularly in the recent economic reforms. The essay focuses on the relationship between state power and property rights, inspired by the ideas from Barzel and Sen. A concept of “hierarchical rent sharing” by the authors was used to explain some important institutional characteristics that shape the policies and practices in land redistribution in China.

State power structure and land rights arrangements in China’s history

Ever since 219 BC, China has maintained a number of important features of its state power structure and property rights arrangements. The rulers of the empire with highly centralized state power tended to allocate land to the maximum number of independent peasant cultivators. State did not want land ownership to be too concentrated, as this was conducive neither to the central revenues or its authority. The state supported equi-partition of land among a household’s male descendants rather than primogeniture, a succession arrangement which has come to have profound and far-reaching impacts on Chinese society, because it was conducive to supporting gentry stratum based on small and medium landowners, and curbed the political and economic power of the aristocracy and big landlords and also inhibited large-scale land operation.

China’s land system is historically a major institutional reason for the high level of development of China’s traditional economy. But with economic prosperity and a growing population, none of China’s major dynasties, could avoid their predestined downfall due to civil strife. Rather than stimulating positive change in China, the early exchanges and collisions of the civilizations of China and the West impelled China to duplicate the original cyclic mode on a larger scale. After the Qing government being forced to open treaty ports to the West in the middle of 19th century, the capitalist economy developed rapidly in the coastal cities. The rural crisis however was exacerbated. The main cause for this crisis was not the concentration of land ownership, but the deteriorating environment of rural governance, especially the failure of the gentry stratum to become a positive force for reforming regional or grassroots governance.

China’s rural crisis in the first half of the 20th century provided the conditions for revolutionary armed separatism. CCP’s leader Mao Zedong successfully used this opportunity to achieve a revolutionary strategy of the countryside surrounding the towns. The 1947-1952 land reforms helped the CCP took over the state power, its most far-reaching impact was the total overturning of the social foundation of China’s traditional rural governance, shaking the legitimacy of private property. China’s state power gained unprecedented capacity of mobilization and organization in the countryside; comprehensively intervening in all rural economic and social life.

  1. This paper has been prepared for the workshop “Land Redistribution in Africa: Towards a common vision.” The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive Directors of The World Bank or the governments they represent.
  2. Xiaopeng Luo, Zhuhui Huang and Wenrong Qian are professors of China Academy for Rural Development, Zhejiang University in China.

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