BEIJING In China, local governments are organizing large-scale relocations of farmers, moving them into apartments in order to sell their land. They are calling this Building the New Countryside, but it seems that building will take precedence over the countryside.
Should farmers be forced to leave their land for an apartment? I could understand the question if it were raised by an agricultural family.
But the issue becomes so obviously absurd when the people asking the question are officials -- and these officials are using their power to promote the answer as a public policy.
If a question such as whether farmers should live in apartments can be decided by the government, should it also decide what the farmers are to plant, how much and how they plant as well as who they eventually sell the harvest to? Housing makes up one of the basic necessities of peoples livelihood - clothing, food, housing and mobility - if the government starts interfering in peoples housing, where will it end?
Many of Chinas rural areas still lack basic public services. The government has the responsibility of these services, which go a long way to reduce the gap between urban and rural areas and should be made a priority. This is what the government should focus on, rather than trying to decide who can do what and where.
The government is supposed to serve the farmers and not the other way round. This should be common sense. It is also the norm in developed countries where public policy and social welfare go hand in hand. Although Chinese officials are accustomed to saying that they are at the peoples service, in practice its actually the people who are at the officials service.
Want to move to another city? That could land you in jail
Fortunately, common sense does seem to have made headway in recent years. It used to be very common for urban authorities to put migrant workers in jail for not having a stable residence or work in the city. In 2003, Sun Zhigang was forcibly taken into custody and beaten to death in jail. His crime? Not having a temporary resident permit. He had just arrived in the city of Guangzhou when he was stopped by police and forced into resettlement.
Since that very public case, some local governments have decided that citizens are free to come and go as they like, without risking arrest. The homeless have freedom of movement, so shouldnt it be expected that ordinary people be allowed to live wherever they want?
In recent decades, a lot of farmers have built houses either for their own use or to rent out. The government has, up to now, denied permanent land-use rights to farmers and continues to threaten to take the land back. The reason why local governments are pushing farmers off their land is so that they can gain fiscal revenue and improve their performance and image indicators by doing so.
It is only in extraordinary circumstances, for instance due to significant public interest, that the civil rights of the people are constrained. Any change in land stewardship should be implemented under the vigorous democratic rule of law so that the definition of public interest is clear, the land transaction is voluntary, the alternatives have been taken into account, the price evaluation is independent and the compensation isn't lower than the market price.
Although the commercial exploitation of land involves the thorny issue of profit redistribution -which should not be wholly attributed to farmers- authorities could adjust the situation through the land tax instead of robbing farmers of the fruits of their efforts.
Read the original article in Chinese
Photo - Kyle Taylor