By Elizabeth Pond
Rule of law in China was surely served by this month's dramatic (if provisional) release of world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei from jail. But it is also served by the expansion of land tenure that 700 million peasants have profited from, by the surprising power of Beijing think tanks to set unorthodox agendas, and by the democratic example of Taiwan.
Ai Weiwei’s contribution is to defy arbitrary arrest under what English-speaking Communist officials like to call “rule by law"”—the Party's law. A less dramatic contribution to rule of law is being made by people like Pan Kebiao, a go-getter peasant I met in Fengyang County, Anhui Province this past spring. Like millions of other Chinese peasants, Pan has taken advantage of the land-use rights that legislation has bestowed on him in the past dozen years, thanks to think-tank lobbying and the Taiwan model.
An outsider might wonder if Pan’s grandparents were among Anhui Province’s traditional beggars, or perhaps part of the horrendously high 25 percent of Fengyang County’s population that died in Chairman Mao Zedong’s famine two generations ago. Either way, Pan lives far better than his parents’ generation did. As legally guaranteed usage rights increased on his eight-tenths of a hectare, Pan invested in a small tractor, made higher profits on his rice and wheat, and recently even bought a car to make extra money by taking off-season transport jobs.
Pan possesses the actual paper contract to the renewable and transferable 30-year lease on his cropland. As “rights awareness” spreads, he, like a growing number of Chinese peasants, counts on that contract to assure the duration and full extent of his individual land use. Since he does not live near a municipality, Pan does not fear the greatest danger to peasant leaseholders: the expropriation of contiguous land by cities and towns expanding under China’s economic boom. He fully expects to bequeath his plot to his niece. (In a sense, Pan is a living advertisement for the ideas of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who took part in an in-depth Q&A that appears in the current issue of World Policy Journal.)
It was not always thus. Pan’s good fortune flows from paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s success in starting decollectivization and market reforms in Fengyang County back in 1978 and 1979 (when Pan was still a boy), as well as in opening up the Party to innovative ideas that might come from new-fangled think tanks.
Deng's decollectivization of agriculture tacitly imitated post-World War II small-plot private land reforms in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Not only did it set in motion China’s 30 years of 10 percent annual economic growth, but also poverty alleviation for more than half a billion peasants—history’s largest and fastest such change, according to World Bank economists. Pan experienced his own technological revolution, eventually acquiring a cellphone and computer—“everything except an air conditioner,” he reports. And he became part of the 33 percent minority of Anhui peasants who understand their land-use rights (according to surveys by the Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences).
The Communist hierarchy’s current deference to farmers arises largely from fears of a peasant revolt that could end its dynasty in the same way earlier peasant revolutions toppled previous regimes. But the current form of legal land-use rights in the countryside also owes much to the system of think tanks that began under Deng. The contemporary Party's expanded tolerance for letting intellectuals propose alternative policies today echoes the ancient role of mandarins who were supposed to speak truth and wisdom to the emperor.
Significantly, the Party’s top drafter of farm legislation, Chen Xiwen, advanced to his present post on the State Council advisory staff through the think tank system of recommending out-of-the-box policy proposals. He publicly championed rescinding the agricultural tax well before it occurred in 2005. He is widely known as a defender of peasants against expropriation by powerful city cadres without fair compensation. Both he and the Rural Development Institute of the 30-year-young Chinese Academy of Social Sciences where he started his career have repeatedly nudged the Party to expand peasants’ individual land-use rights. As a result, Party policy in the 1980s and legislation from 1998 on have progressively extended land-tenure guarantees from a single term of 15 years to today’s 30 renewable years, with formal right of transfer.
The only hitch, of course, is that the central authorities do not enforce their own laws when local authorities execute violent or unrecompensed land seizures. The Communist Party hierarchy is schizophrenic, ordering cities to multiply wealth quickly but denying them the real-estate tax authority to fund growth—then passing laws that increasingly protect peasants’ tenure while politically rewarding local officials who enrich their cities quickly through unlawful land grabs.
Deng—Mao Zedong’s comrade-in-arms, author of the Tienanmen crackdown in 1989, and eventual marketizer of the socialist countryside—certainly never expected what he started in Fengyang County in the late 1970s would morph into a movement toward rule of law. But the economic growth and political adaptation he triggered led logically in that direction. And today, Yu Jianrong of the Rural Development Institute is going as far as to advocate that China adopt the rule of law practiced in democratic Taiwan in order to defend peasants against exploitation.
Perhaps the muzzled Ai Weiwei, before he is re-arrested, should sculpt a mute statue symbolizing rule of law and its benefits for contemporary Chinese peasants like Pan Kebiao.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist.
[Photo courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute]