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A report from U.S. Embassy Beijing June 1997

Summary. Landsat photos showing that China is losing cultivated land to development two and one-half times faster than previously assumed have moved the Politburo into ordering tough new measures. The revised Criminal Code of the PRC passed by the National People's Congress in March 1997 makes unauthorized land transfers punishable by up to five years in prison. On May 18, 1997 the State Council froze for one year all land transfers not specifically and directly authorized by the Council. Rural officials typically have little understanding of regulations limiting the conversion of cultivated land. Some impoverished local governments see the conversion of cultivated land as a big money-maker. One land protection strategy, the consolidation of scattered villages into urban villages, not only frees up cultivated land but also facilitates delivery of health and educational services to villagers. A May 18 People's Daily editorial called stopping illegal conversion of agricultural land an important measure to protect China's ability to feed itself.

Agricultural Land Loss Far Higher Than Expected

The National Land Management Bureau confirmed to ESTOFF a China Land News [Zhongguo Tudi Bao] April 15, 1997 press report that the Chinese Communist Party Politburo decided on February 18, 1997 that China needed 'the world's toughest agricultural land protection regulations.' According to the article, Politburo members on February 18 viewed satellite photos from NASA's LANDSAT-5 for 1987, 1991, and 1995 for seventeen large Chinese urban areas showed that the rate of conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural use was fully two and one-half times greater than official statistics. The Politburo decided at that meeting to intensify land management in order to protect China's cultivated land.

Unauthorized Transfers Criminalized, May 18 Land Freeze

Tough measures have followed. Unauthorized conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural use became a criminal offense in the revised Criminal Code of the PRC passed by the National People's Congress in March 1997. On May 18, 1997 the State Council ordered a one-year freeze on all agricultural land conversions not specifically and directly authorized by the State Council.

President Jiang Shocked At Cultivated Land Loss

At an earlier meeting on January 8, at which large satellite photos for the 17 cities were shown, Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin reportedly said, "You'd never know if you weren't told, and you would feel shocked after hearing about it" [buting buzhidao, yiting xiayitiao]. The National Land Management Bureau refused to give the Embassy the revised figures for the conversion of land for non-agricultural purposes since the new figures are for internal use only. China now loses about 0.5 percent of its cultivated land to conversion each year according to official published estimates. [Note: See "Can China Feed Itself in the 21st Century: Land Use Patterns May Provide Some Answers" for a detailed analysis of loss of agricultural land to non-agricultural use. This report from the Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology section can be found on the Embassy Beijing EST section web page at http://www.redfish.com/USEmbassy-China/sandt.htm End note]

August 1995: Premier Li Peng Orders Investigation

According to the April 15, 1997 "China Land News" report, On August 8, 1995, when listening to a report by State Land Administration (SLA) directors, Premier Li Peng mentioned that he had seen a large quantity of idled land within Hebei Province while overflying the province. Premier Li requested SLA directors to check on this and allocated a helicopter to them to conduct a survey.

Much Idled Land at Former Construction Sites, Along Roads

According to the article, SLA Deputy Director Li Yuan subsequently flew between Beijing and Hengshui County of Hebei. He discovered large areas of idled land. Then he saw a series of problems: some construction sites have occupied large areas of land and left them as waste land. Around many villages, the areas of idled land adjacent to the villages are much larger than the villages themselves, resulting in many 'hollow villages'. Along the highways, there are many buildings and a serious 'swallowing-up' on land by brick kilns.... The inspecting team took many photos from the air and also made video tapes. However, because of the weather and the inadequate photographic resolution, the area surveyed could not be specified exactly. Thus a good understanding of the overall situation could not be obtained using aerial photography.

Landsat Images: Cultivated Land Loss Double Expected Rate

Therefore, the State Land Administration purchased satellite data from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station. In collaboration with technicians from Beijing Normal University, the Capital Teacher's University and Beijing Agriculture University, they started making satellite images for monitoring the 17 cities and regions. When those satellite images came out, all staff from SLA were surprised that the area of cultivated land loss was 2.5 times larger than the statistics. With blind and unreasonable urban development, the amount of idled and waste land has exceeded greatly the statistics and the data from land monitoring, concluded the China Land News article.

Local Governments Raise Money by Farm Land Conversion

Jiang Ailin and Chen Haiqiu of the Hunan Province Land Management Bureau wrote in the April, 1997 issue of Chongqing Environmental Science [Chongqing Huanjing Kexue] that local governments and central government ministries often approve improper farm land conversions in order to enrich local government treasuries or to fund swollen government bureaucracies. Jiang and Chen write that Agricultural Ministry employees who enforce central government regulations typically have little understanding of land management regulations. Jiang and Chen said that under the existing regulations there is no way to punish local government officials who far exceed their authority in approving land conversions. There are no restrictions or standards for the land use of collective land by township and village enterprises or for non-agricultural construction. Promulgation of detailed regulations and creation of a agricultural land protection system were an urgent tasks, wrote Jiang and Chen.

Illegal Farmland Conversion: Up to Five Years in Prison

Heightened central government concern about the loss of farm land to non-agricultural uses resulted in a new provision on land conversion in the March 1997 revision of the Criminal Code of the PRC. According to section 342 of the revised criminal code, whomsoever, in violation of the provisions of the Land Management Law, diverts agricultural land to non-agricultural uses, can be punished, in cases involving large areas of land and severe damage to farmland, by imprisonment of up to five years, a fine, or both.

State Council Notice Freezes Farm Land Conversion

An even stronger measure was the May 18, 1997 State Council notice that froze for one year all agricultural land conversion. Exceptions must be approved directly by the State Council. The State Council notice called on all levels of government to increase the amount and quality of agricultural land. Except for the needs of environmental protection projects, agricultural land must not be encroached upon, even for digging fish ponds or for creating forests. If land must be used for non-agricultural purposes, an equivalent amount of non-agricultural land of at least the same area and quality must be returned to agriculture. Urban land must be used efficiently to avoid encroaching on agricultural land. The scale of construction in urban areas and the urban population must increase no more than provided in plans approved up to the year 2000. No further increases should be permitted after this date, said the State Council order.

People's Daily: Protect Our Land So China Can Feed Itself

A May 19 front page editorial in "People's Daily" condemns people who illegally convert farmland: "This kind of disregard for the future of our country, for the life and death of our people, and for the well-being of our children and grandchildren cannot be tolerated!" and "Everyone has responsibility for protecting farmland. We must take good care of the land our ancestors have farmed for 5000 years. ...Only in this way will we be able to answer the people in foreign countries who urgently ask, 'Who will feed China in the Twenty-First Century?'. China will answer confidently "Our future is one of sustainable development. We will be able to rely completely upon our own land to feed China and to build China!"

The Urban Village: A Strategy for Saving Land

Jiangsu Province plans to recover large tracts of agricultural land by consolidating widely scattered villages into a much smaller number of large 'urban villages'. An urban village is a higher density, higher population version of a rural village that can provide many more urban conveniences that can any of the small village scattered across the countryside. The government expects that this scheme will also improve rural living standards since delivery of health and educational services to people in urban villages will become much easier than to people in many smaller scattered villages. According to the May 19 "People's Daily" editorial, Jiangsu Province plans to consolidate its over 280,000 villages into over 50,000 larger villages. The gain in cultivated land through village consolidation in Jiangsu Province is expected to be 200,000 hectares.

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