land reform: the first SZ paper of 2013

In its first document 2013 (2013年一号文件) Shenzhen announced that its intention to finish expropriating collective lands in order to transfer land use rights for high-end development to state owned real estate developers, like China Resources and Jingji. In official parlance its know as  land reform (土改), and yes, I’m starting to think I live in a post-ironic city.

The problem of Shenzhen urban villages is, of course, that they were not villages. Under Mao, they were incorporated into the state apparatus through collectivization. Villages became teams, several teams became a brigade, and groups of brigades constituted a commune. In turn, the communes were the basic administrative unit of Bao’an County, Shenzhen’s territorial predecessor. In short, the collectives had a modern bureaucracy, and did agrarian work in not quite primitive, but very rough conditions.

In 1978, led by liberalization in rural Anhui, teams and brigades throughout China began to dismantle, and Bao’an was no exception. Redeploying the administrative structure of the Maoist state, they created “new villages”, which continued to do agrarian work, but for collective profits. Traditional village relationships and historic identities facilitated this process. In Bao’an, however, the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ meant that collectives could also invest in manufacturing and real estate development.

In 1992, Shenzhen incorporated the inner villages into the municipal apparatus and in 2004 the outer villages were incorporated. So technically, the villages, which had not been villages, were now urban neighborhoods. Except, they were also limited holding companies. And there’s the legal rub: Shenzhen urban villages were limited holding companies which owned investments that had been legally built on collective land, but now occupied state-owned land, creating a messy, grey area of compensation demands and property rights.  According to Shenzhen Urban Planning Chief, Wang Youpeng (王幼鹏),

The government cannot take [the land] back, and the collectives can’t use it (政府拿不回,集体用不了).

The Municipality’s convoluted description of the villages reflects this complicated history. In the first document of 2013, the villages are called “Former Rural Village Economic Organization Work Unit (原农村集体经济组织单位)” — hee! But here’s the not-so-funny point: The 2013 paper legalizes the direct transfer of collective lands to real estate companies. Previously, the villages negotiated with the Municipality, which in turn accepted bids from real estate companies. Now, the Municipality has stepped back from this role. Instead, the villages may negotiate directly with the companies.

In terms of asset transfer, it means that villages must remove their technically illegal buildings from municipal lands. Their are two compensation packages. Either, villages sell their buildings, giving half the price of the sale to the Municipal government, or the villages sell their buildings and give 70% of the price to the Municipal government, but receive up to 20% of whatever is subsequently built on the land.

Xi Jinping has come and gone. The Shenzhen People’s Congress has met and disbanded. Exhortations to study the Spirit of the 2013 18th National People’s Congress have proliferated throughout Shenzhen. And now we know what it means – there is a new means of legalizing the transfer of property and resources from the urban villages to Shenzhen Municipality, further concentrating property and resources in the hands of whoever happens to be in charge of negotiating this process on behalf of the People Party.

That said, after a surge in the stock market, the general response has been one of confusion. It seems the paper is unclear on how the process will actually take place.

land reform, again.

An Old Shenzhener once complained to me that since the 1989 Crackdown, in Shenzhen “reform” has been too often interpreted to mean “refining the state system”, rather than actually reforming society. His point was simple. During the first decade of Reform, people had an opportunity to participate in and even direct the direction of development in Shenzhen. The fact of widespread participation made Shenzhen “special”. In contrast, after June 4th, Shenzhen became increasingly bureaucratized – like Beijing – and participating in social transformation was no longer possible for the common people. Instead, the Government had become the key social force and thus, social agency meant “works under the guidance of government bureaus” for the benefit of government officials and their cronies.

The Municipality’s latest “land reform (土改)” program illustrates the problem that aggrieved my friend. Last week, the government released three documents that legislate the scope and direction of land reform: The Comprehensive Plan to Reform Shenzhen Land Administration (深圳市土地管理制度改革总体方案), The Immediate Short Term Plan (2012-2015) of the Comprehensive Plan to Reform Shenzhen Land Administration, (〈深圳市土地管理制度改革总体方案〉近期实施方案(2012~2015年), and Notification of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Land Administration Reform Guiding Committee (关于成立深圳市土地管理制度改革领导小组的通知). Together these documents determine the target of reform, the method of reform, and the people who will interpret and implement land reform. Moreover, even a cursory reading the documents indicates that at stake in these documents is (1) finalizing the transfer of outstanding land rights from village holdings to the Municipality and (2) determining the status of informal property rights in urban villages so that (3) developers can more easily realize the goals outlined in the Municipality’s Comprehensive Master Plan, 2010-2020.

And there’s the rub: During the 1980s, villagers and various entrepreneurs collaborated to build the urban villages. My friend understood this situation be “true” or “ideal” reform because ordinary people could realize projects outside the purview of government plans. At the time, none of those projects were “informal” or “illegal” because the villages held legal land rights. He also thought that this freedom to develop land was the precondition for true social reform. He didn’t think that all villages had done a good job with the opportunity, but nevertheless believed that the idea of small-scale development and common participation was the point of reform. However, once the villages had been incorporated into the Municipal apparatus, that first round of development could be reinterpreted in terms of illegal buildings and informal property rights, alienating villagers and unofficial developers from participating in future development projects except as recipients of compensation packages.

Shenzhen property rights are a muddle that the Government needs to handle carefully to avoid aggravating extant (and growing) inequality. On the one hand, by incorporating village lands into the state apparatus and compensating villagers and independent landlords for their extant holdings, the Government creates ill will on two counts. First, people without hereditary land rights or informal property rights have no chance to benefit from this process. Second, with the exception of farmers, the process enriches government officials and corporate executives, which is the common sense definition of “corruption”. On the one hand, if the government were to reform property laws to allow for individuals to develop land, this would mean completely restructuring the state apparatus and concomitant property rights. This is what my friend would like to see – capitalist opportunities for individuals, rather than for government officials and large corporations. But this seems more a definition of “revolution” than “land reform” as it would mean redistributing rights to high-rises, shopping malls, neighborhoods, housing estates, and industrial areas.

Guanwai village lands were not only extensive, but also remain underdeveloped. Consequently, the experimental target of overall land reform in the 2012-2015 short term plan is Pingshan New District, while the experimental targets of “second round development (第二次开发)” are be Gonghe Community, Shajing Precinct, Baoan and Shanxia Community, Pinghu Precinct, Longgang.