Geographer Joshua Muldavin has published an op-ed piece on the broader implications of the recent Wukang incident in which he reminds us that China’s rise as a global economic power “is built upon an unresolved land struggle with hundreds of millions of lives in the balance. Anything that negatively alters the quality of life of China’s rural majority has the potential to impact the already fragile global economy, sending ripples across the world.”
Muldavin points out in the piece that, across China, over 700,000 hectares of land were illegally transferred from agricultural to commercial or industrial use in 2011 alone. That’s more than half of the total 1.1 million hectares transferred, according to State Council reports.
Land loss leaves many rural families — still the majority of China’s population — without access to enough land to produce their food. Wukan’s villagers not only saw 400 hectares of shared land sold to a property developer, but their common fishing grounds were sold off as well to a large seafood company. This severely reduced many villagers’ basic subsistence. Their rising anger and desperation is seen in other rural areas nationwide.Land grabs are part and parcel of growing social inequality in China. Despite increasingly strong populist rhetoric from the government, along with significant rural investment to counter rising discontent, China today rivals the most unequal countries in the world. The 400 million Chinese at the bottom face continual threats to their livelihoods through land loss.
Beijing’s success in quelling daily unrest around the country, mainly through the use of local officials as scapegoats, fails to address the fundamental problem: a development path built on an eroding foundation of unjust land grabs, environmental destruction, social polarization and the resulting vulnerability of the country’s poorest and most marginal people. Until these structural issues are addressed, the Wukan incident will only be a harbinger of things to come.
Muldavin’s piece offers us a useful contrast to Wang Wenwen’s recent Global Times article, which claimed that rural residents are no longer interested in pursuing urban citizenship because rural development and modernization had been so successful they had no reason to leave! Wang even pointed out the benefits of land grabs for farmers by claiming “demolition compensation” as one of the advantages of having rural hukou status. If ‘demolition compensation’ is the best spin Wang can put on rural China’s smoldering land crisis, then Muldavin is probably correct in expecting only more Wukangs in the coming years.