Farmers in China have faced forced evictions and illicit land grabs for decades often with little or no compensation in return as China raced to urbanize and settle social unrest in the country.
Millions of hectares of rural land were taken away from farmers in the past three decades and given to developers. Rural migrants living in run-down inner-city areas have also been forcefully evicted in recent years as cities fight congestion.
“Land disputes trigger half of an estimated 100,000 social protests in China every year, making them the second leading cause for public unrest after labour disputes,” Ni Yulan, a lawyer who advocates for property rights of low-income families in Beijing said.
Ni has been jailed twice for her advocacy and is paralyzed from the waist down, a result she says of beatings received during her detention.
Her house in Beijing was demolished by officials in 2008, but she has not yet been able to file a complaint about it because “local courts were operating hand in glove with the local government”, her husband Dong Jiqin said.
China’s first-ever civil code approved by parliament last week focuses on giving judges greater independence and curbing the influence of local officials, but the judiciary is still ultimately answerable to the Communist Party.
The new guidelines have narrowed the interpretation of “public interest” to prevent abusive land grabs.
It also makes it mandatory for local governments to make public announcements on “all acts taken by the state in relation to private property”, thus making land transactions more transparent.
But it does not stipulate any punishments for those illegally expropriating land or the rights of individual farmers to collective land, making it harder for families to seek compensation.
The wide-ranging legislative package will come into effect on January 1.
“For the first time, the civil code offers one whole (legal) system,” Liu Qiao, who specializes in Chinese and English civil law at the City University of Hong Kong, said.
“It forces courts and judges to be consistent with their interpretations, thus reducing room for political meddling.”
But Dong, who is also an activist, was concerned that the new provisions will be ignored during enforcement. “The problem in China is that there is no supervision, and the judiciary doesn’t act in accordance with the law,” he said.
Local governments have taken away land from 100,000 to 500,000 farmers every year between 2005 and 2015, in violation of national land-use laws, according to a study by Qiao Shitong, a property and urban law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
In China, land can only be owned by the state or collective organizations. Private individuals or businesses can only buy the right to use land for up to 70 years.
The civil code, for the first time, affirms that land-use rights for residential homes will be automatically renewed after expiration but does not say whether owners need to pay for renewals.