China: Growth or the Good Earth?

As China rushes to implement its four trillion yuan (58 billion US dollars) economic stimulus package, success is seen dependent on the ability of government officials to come up with free land for the hundreds of new infrastructure projects like airports and housing that Beijing hopes would lift growth and keep recession at bay. But land is a precious commodity in China. When a leading mainland economist suggested recently that Beijing’s steadfast insistence on keeping a minimum of 120 million hectares of arable land was “a hurdle for China’s further industrialisation and urbanisation” and should be discarded, it created nothing less than a public furore.

Mao Yushi, founder of the independent Unirule Institute of Economics, has overnight become “a public enemy,” said the China Times newspaper. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the famine that left tens of millions of people dead during the Great Leap Forward —sssssss Mao Zedong’s utopian attempt to make communist China leapfrog the industrialised nations of the West. The anniversary is likely to pass unmarked but the leadership has pulled out all stops to guarantee a minimum of 120 million ha of arable land, which it says is needed to ensure the food security for its 1.3 billion people. The minimum supply of land is essential, they say, if the country wants to secure 95 per cent food-sufficiency. To Beijing’s dismay, the imperative to preserve land is now in sharp conflict with the leadership’s number one priority for 2009 — to preserve growth. The ministry of land and resources estimates that about 80 per cent of the stimulus package announced by Beijing in November would require new slots of land.

The global economic slowdown has become a serious test for Beijing in succeeding in keeping the country’s economy growing. The ruling Communist Party has linked its legitimacy to providing continuous economic fortunes for its people and a hard landing for the Chinese economy, which has been expanding at double-digit rates since 2003, could imperil its grip on power over the country. The conflict of interests was apparent at a news briefing at China’s Cabinet, in December. Lu Xinshe, vice-minister of the ministry of land and resources, spoke about the growing pressure on arable land.

“It is a huge amount to be invested in a very short period of time,” Lu said of the fiscal stimulus package that is to be implemented through to the end of 2010. “With so many projects to be built, it will be a challenge to keep the bottom line of arable land.” To some economists though, the minimum required arable land serves not the country’s food security issue but the government’s need to keep land grabbing in check. Land grab by local officials has been one of the main sources for civil unrest in a country where 750 million people are still tied to the land.

China consumes 500 million tonnes of grains every year and so far its annual output has hovered around this figure. After its publication in late December, the Unirule report ignited a wide polemic about China’s historical memory and its fears of famine. “Chinese people’s deep ingrained fears of hunger are now used as a horror tool by those who oppose the progress of land reform in the country,” says Su Qi, a columnist for the China Investor Journal. — IPS