China plans trial program to let farmers sell land


China will carry out a groundbreaking trial program that may allow farmers to sell land, a senior official said Wednesday, a step toward liberalizing rural real estate transactions currently monopolized by the government.

The ability to sell land is expected to accelerate China’s urbanization, a key driver of its economic boom, by enabling farmers to realize value from their assets, facilitating their move to the cities.

Under current law, all land is ultimately owned by the state or by rural collectives, while farmers can retain usage rights in the countryside.

Only the government has the power to appropriate land, often with little or no compensation, and can then sell it to property developers at a huge profit, leading to widespread social resentment and frequently triggering unrest.

A total of 33 county-level areas, including Beijing’s Daxing district — the site of the capital’s new airport — will suspend some regulations that ban the free trading of some nonfarming land, according to Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature.

The program will allow “rural land for business purposes” — usually real estate used for industry or commerce — to be traded on the market, meaning farmers are no long restricted to selling it to the government, according to a report posted on the NPC’s website.

“This reform is to support the development of agriculture modernization and urbanization, and it intends to better protect farmers’ rights and interests during the process of reforms,” Fu told reporters at a news conference.

The Communist Party pledged at its Third Plenum in 2013 to grant farmers the same rights as urban dwellers by creating a legal basis for them to transfer or rent out their “land use rights.”

The trial is an implementation of that promise and may increase rural incomes while reducing clashes between local governments and farmers, said Wang Cailiang, director of the Beijing Cailiang Law Firm. “But it is an open question whether this will be a good or bad thing for the future,” he added. “The key of this issue is… who will be the decision maker of the land. If it is still to be decided by the county-level governments, property developers or village officials instead of farmers, I think the trial program will be a step backwards.”