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The benefits of allowing free land trade – reflections on land allocation in China


This is the 1510 Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

Although China controls an extensive territory, pressure on land is high. A large proportion of the country is not suitable for human habitation, and the government exerts strict control on land allocation.
The pieces in today’s digest propose various perspectives on land allocation mechanisms in China. Economist Mao Yushi suggests that a more flexible market for farm land would have positive social and economic effects. Zhou Qiren describes administrative procedures for deciding what area will be considered urban or rural. Finally, Tu Motuo’s ‘On mountains’ presents a meditative counterpoint, by offering a more personal reflection focusing on the significance of inhospitable landscapes.

The benefits of allowing free land trade
By Mao Yushi, 23 November 2012

Economist Mao Yushi proposes that developing a free market for farm land would contribute to reducing poverty among farmers. China experiences land pressure, for which Mao Yushi identifies two main causes. One is China’s geography: only 12% of China’s huge territory can be easily used for human activities. The other is administrative: land allocation mechanisms are entirely controlled by government, resulting in a number of contradictions and sub-optimal allocations.
A shift to market-based mechanisms for land allocation would be a source for economic growth and social benefits. Mao Yushi quotes five likely consequences to this change.
1. Farmers would become considerably wealthier, as they would find themselves in control of a tradable resource.
2. Land prices would come down, and so would housing costs.
3. Increased wealth and reduced prices would enable migrant workers to become more stable city residents.
4. Migrant workers better settling in cities would result in increased overall social stability
5. The creation of wealth resulting from this shift would increase domestic consumption and bring about economic growth.

Marco Polo translation: The benefits of allowing free land trade
Original link: 允许土地自由交易的好处

Procedures to establish a city and urban boundaries
By Zhou Qiren, 06 November 2012

In this post, economist Zhou Qiren brings attention to an administrative question with numerous social implications: how are the boundaries of China’s ‘urban areas’ determined? Zhou Qiren’s reflections on the social and economic consequences of urban policy appeared in a previous digest, Urban redevelopment, a city’s life and death.
The distinction between ‘urban’ and ‘rural; area is not a spontaneous natural phenomenon, but the result of an administrative decision; and this administrative process is stricly controlled by the government. Policy guidelines do exist – mostly based on population density – but these guidelines are vague, leading to potentially arbitrary decisions. Another problem is that the process of administrative change is entirely controlled by the central government, leading to long delays for change, as well as poor understanding of local situations.
In the 80s, the main process for setting up a new city was to ‘cut off’ the most densely populated area in a county, and redefine it as an urban area. The territory of this new city was to be ‘in the shape of a point’. There are benefits to this model: land preservation, better infrastructure development – but also downsides – increased administrative costs (as the rural and urban area require their separate administrations), and an abrupt gap between rural and urban area. Another model exists, which was first trialled in Zhejiang, and has since become the most popular: change the status of a whole county, from ‘rural’ to ‘urban’.
Zhou Qiren does not conclude with any recommendation, but an encouragement to consider the question further, as it has numerous social, environmental and economic effects.

Marco Polo translation: Procedures to establish a city and urban boundaries
Original link: 设立城市的程序与城市边界

On Mountains
By Tu Motuo, 22 September 2012

In this meditative piece, Tu Motuo reflects on the significance of mountains – a key element of the Chinese landscape, and a traditional source of fascination for poets and artists.
Growing up in Beijing, Tu Motuo’s only direct experience of mountains was climbing the ‘Xiang Shan’ hill behind the Forbidden City. Later, his travels took him close to many mountains. He realises then that the hardest mountains to climb are not necessarily the highest – and describes more particularly the “Tower Mountain” of Argentina, perpetually clouded in mist. There, he meets a group of climbers retreating after ten days at the camp, unable to reach the summit. This leads him to wonder: what makes mountains so appealing?
The answer comes to him later at a bar in Yunnan, during a conversation with a professional climber. The man does not like climbing, but he does the memories of the journey, remembering the details of the landscape, and the view from above, in the quiet of his room. Tu Motuo concludes: mountains are fascinating because they are radically not suitable for human habitation; we can never stay on them, but from their summit, we can see the world in a different perspective.

Marco Polo translation: On Mountains
Original link: 山说

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

The China Story, China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are publications of the Australian Centre on China in the World.