Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, has directly blamed local governments for a rise in “mass incidents” in the countryside, saying officials had provoked unrest through illegal land grabs and unfair compensation.
“On land issues, we must not make historic errors,” said Mr Wen, using an old-style political language which underlines the ruling communist party’s concern about losing the political battle in the countryside.
Mr Wen’s comments were contained in a speech to a meeting of the party’s central committee on December 29, but only released on Friday.
“Some local governments have taken over farmland illegally without giving reasonable compensation, and this has sparked ‘mass incidents’ in rural areas,” he said.
Mr Wen also expressed concern about the impact of the increasing loss of rural land to industry on China’s grain production, an issue which is central to Beijing’s policy of “food security.”
In the seven years to 2004, China has said it lost 5 per cent of its arable land to industry, a loss which coincided with the country becoming a net food importer for the first time in decades.
Although some more liberal local economists say China can easily buy food on the world market, top leaders still espouse a more traditional view that the country should push for self-sufficiency.
Mr Wen said the shortfall in production in recent years had resulted in large amounts of grain kept in storage being consumed.
“In the long run, the contradiction between population growth and shrinking farmland, as well a shortage of water resources, will assert itself, and raising food production will become more and more difficult,” he said.
Mr Wen also acknowledged the problem of rural migrant workers who leave their villages to work in cities and large towns, and send their money home to their families.
As well as having to toil in poor conditions and without access to basic social services, many workers complain they are not paid the wages owing to them.
The problem often comes to a head around Chinese new year, which starts next week, when millions of migrant workers go home to their villages to celebrate the traditional holiday with their families.
In addressing the issue of confiscation of rural properties, Mr Wen said the “basic land operating system must be upheld”.
Many critics, however, believe the present system provides an irresistible financial incentive for corrupt local officials to take rural land and needs urgent reform, something Mr Wen has not countenanced.
Chinese urban dwellers can now buy and sell their houses and apartments, but rural land remains under collective ownership and cannot be traded by farmers.
As a result, local officials can make huge profits by getting hold of rural land and have it re-zoned for industrial use, allowing them at the stroke of a pen to sell it for use as a factory.