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Explaining Land Use Change in a Guangdong County: The Supply Side of the Story*

  • Yew Chiew Ping (a1)

The conversion of land to non-agricultural use in China has often been attributed to the demand for land arising from urbanization, that is, a growing urban population and the shift from agricultural to industrial activity. With a focus on Sihui 四会, a county in Guangdong, this study explains land use conversion from an alternative perspective: by looking at the supply of agricultural land for conversion and what determines this supply. It gives precedence to the role of the central actors in the process – local officials – and suggests that the extent to which agricultural land is converted for non-agricultural purposes is determined by an array of structural and agential factors, including the fiscal and land resources at the disposal of local officials, the incentive structure and macro-processes which influence their decision.

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1 Lin George C. S. and Ho Samuel P. S., “China's land resources and land-use change: insights from the 1996 land survey,” Land Use Policy, No. 20 (2003), p. 97.

2 “Shui guanxin shidi nongmin de mingyun?” (“Who will care about the fate of landless farmers?”), Zhongguo jingji shibao (China Financial News), 9 May 2003. One mu is equal to 0.067 hectare.

3 “Woguo tudi jiadi zhi duoshao?” (“How much do you know about our country's land assets?”), Zhonghua renmin gongheguo guotu ziyuan bu (The Ministry of Land and Resources PRC),, 20 November 2007, accessed 12 February 2008.

4 See Shen Jianfa, “Estimating urbanization levels in Chinese provinces in 1982–2000,” International Statistical Review, Vol. 74, No. 1 (2006), p. 95. The figures are calculated based on the 1982, 1990 and 2000 censuses and have been adjusted to include a non-hukou population.

5 See, for instance, Ho Samuel P. S. and Lin George C. S., “Converting land to nonagricultural use in China's coastal provinces: evidence from Jiangsu,” Modern China, Vol. 30, No. 1 (2004), pp. 81112; Minghong Tan, Xiubin Li, Hui Xie and Changhe Lu, “Urban land expansion and arable land loss in China: a case study of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region,” Land Use Policy, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2005), pp. 187–96.

6 Refer to Lin George C. S., “Reproducing spaces of Chinese urbanization: new city-based and land-centered urban transformation,” Urban Studies, Vol. 44, No. 9 (2007), pp. 1832–33; Mingxing Liu, Ran Tao, Fei Yuan and Guangzhong Cao, “Instrumental land use investment-driven growth in China,” Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2008), pp. 313–31. See also Shouying Liu, “Jingti tudi jingying chengshihua de caizheng he jinrong fengxian” (“Be wary of the financial risks in using land deals to promote urbanization”), Lilun tantao (Theory Exploration), No. 9 (2005), pp. 4647.

7 Lin, ‘Reproducing spaces of Chinese urbanization,” pp. 1832–33.

8 In China's primary land market, the government holds a monopoly over land supply as the rural collectives that own land use rights to agricultural land are barred from entry. Land use rights of collectively owned land must be transferred to the state through land expropriation before conveyance to the land user can take place. There are, of course, illegal means of getting agricultural land directly from rural collectives or peasants through the black market. See Yin Li and Chengyong Zhang, “Tudi ziyuan peizhi zhong de ‘xunzu’ xianxiang jiexi” (“An analysis of ‘rent seeking’ in the allocation of land resources”), Nanfang jingji (Southern Economy), No. 2 (1997), p. 13; Cartier Carolyn, “‘Zone fever,’ the arable land debate, and real estate speculation: China's evolving land use regime and its geographical contradictions,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 10, No. 28 (2001), p. 458.

9 Peterson George E., “Land leasing and land sale as an infrastructure-financing option,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, No. 4043 (2006), The World Bank,, accessed 12 February 2008, p. 3.

10 China's Ministry of Construction disclosed that around 20% of China's 662 cities and over 20,000 designated towns were culpable of “image engineering projects” (xingxiang gongcheng) such as huge squares, wide roads and luxurious office buildings. Jianchao Xie and Chengyu Gong, “Weifa kaifashang he guanyuan weihe wusuo guji” (“Why unlawful developers and officials are fearless”), Zhongguo jingji shibao (China Economic Daily), 11 April 2007, p. 16.

11 Sihuishi guotu ziyuanju (Sihui city Land Resources Bureau), “Sihuishi tudi liyong zongti guihua tiaozheng shuoming” (“Explanation of adjustments in Sihui city's land use master plan”), April 2005.

12 Refer to The Land Administration Law of the People's Republic of China, ch. 3, art. 33; ch. 5, art. 44. Enacted in 1986, the Land Administration Law was revised in 1988 and 1998 and underwent minor amendments more recently on 28 August 2004, at the 11th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Tenth National People's Congress.

13 Refer to You-tien Hsing, “Land and territorial politics in urban China,” The China Quarterly, No. 187 (2006), p. 588; Keng C. W. Kenneth, “China's land disposition system,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 5, No. 13 (1996), p. 344.

14 Weikeng Liu, “Lingnan shezhi zuizao de liu xian zhiyi – Sihui” (“Sihui – one of the six counties set up the earliest in Lingnan's history”), Lingnan wenshi (Lingnan Cultural History), No. 3 (2006), pp. 1214. Sihui was administratively reclassified as a county-level city in November 1993. See “Sihui shi fazhan gaikuang” (“The general development of Sihui city”), Sihui government website,, accessed 20 June 2007.

15 Chaolin Gu, Jianfa Shen, Kwan-yiu Wong and Feng Zhen, “Regional polarization under the socialist-market system since 1978: a case study of Guangdong province in south China,” Environment and Planning A, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2001), pp. 97119.

16 See Ronghua Wang et al. (eds.), Zhaoqing tongji nianjian 2006 (Zhaoqing Statistical Yearbook 2006) (Beijing: Zhongguo tushu chubanshe, 2007), pp. 7274, 89–90, 229–30.

17 Calculated from Appendix.

18 The author's research and fieldwork in Xiamao town in this region uncovered countervailing evidence that suggests the area of construction land has been under-reported.

19 Sihuixian tongjiju (ed.), Sihuixian 1950-1985 nian tongji nianjian (Sihui County Statistical Yearbook 1950–1985).

20 Sihuixian zhi (History of Sihui County) (Guangdong: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1996).

21 Zhang Timing et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 1998 (Sihui Yearbook 1998), p.121; Yao Weiliang et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 2002 (Sihui Yearbook 2002), p. 119; Yao Weiliang et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 2005 (Sihui Yearbook 2005), p. 137.

22 Wang Xianqing, “Zhusanjiao chanye zhuanyi: di'erci langchao xia de jueze” (“Industrial relocation in the Pearl River Delta: making a choice under the second wave”), Zhujiang jingji (Pearl River Delta Economy), No. Z1 (1997), pp. 22–25.

23 Zhang Timing et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 2000 (Sihui Yearbook 2000), p. 95.

24 Yuefuban document no. 15 (2005), “Guangdongsheng renmin zhengfu bangongting guanyu yinfa Guangdongsheng gongye chanye jiegou tiaozheng shishi fang'an [xiudingban] de tongzhi” (“A notice from the Guangdong provincial people's government office regarding the promulgation of the measures for industrial restructuring in Guangdong [revised version]”).

25 Deng Honghua, “Fanzhu sanjiao fazhan zhanlüe zhong de ‘Zhaoqing xianxiang’” (“The ‘Zhaoqing phenomenon’ in the strategic development of the Pan Pearl River Delta”), Taisheng (Voice of Taiwan), No. (2004), pp. 64–65; Liang Ganghua, “Zhusanjiao chanye jiasu xiang zhoubian ‘shanzhuang zhuanyi’” (“Pearl River Delta industries accelerating their transfer to surrounding regions”), Zhonghua xinwenbao (Chinese News), 27 December 2007, p. K01.

26 Yongzheng Sun, “Chengshi jingying de fengxian” (“The risks of running a city like a business”), Shidachao (Trends of the Time), No. 2 (2003), pp. 3637; Jiabin Lin, “Dui ‘chengshi jingying’ re de toushi yu sikao” (“Insight and reflection on the ‘urbanization business’ fever”), Chengshi guihua huikan (Urban Planning Forum), No. 1 (2004), pp. 1013; McGee Terry G., Lin George C.S., Marton Andrew M., Wang Mark Y.L. and Wu Jiaping, China's Urban Space: Development under Market Socialism (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 1326. For a detailed account of the politics of urban land development, see Hsing You-tien, “Land and territorial politics,” pp. 575–91.

27 Lai Changda et al. (eds.), Sihui tongji nianjian 1990–2001 (Sihui Statistical Yearbook 1990–2001), p. 195.

28 Zhang Timing et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 1999 (Sihui Yearbook 1999), p. 256; Sihui Yearbook 2000, p. 233; Ren Caifang et al. (eds.), Zhongguo chengshi tongji nianjian 1997 (Beijing : Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 1998), p. 65; Sihui Yearbook 2005.

29 Zeng Guohuan (Sihui city mayor), “Sihuishi 2004 nian zhengfu gongzuo baogao” (“Sihui city government work report 2004”), speech at the third meeting of Sihui city's 13th People's Congress, 3 March 2004.

30 Zhang Timing et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 2001 (Sihui Yearbook 2001), p. 519; Zhaoqing tongji nianjian 2006, p. 89; Caifang Ren et al. (eds.), Zhongguo chengshi tongji nianjian 1995 (Beijing: Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 1996), p. 47.

31 Wu Sheng, “2006 nian zhengfu gongzuo baogao” (“Government report 2006”), 17 March 2006, Sihui government website,, accessed 16 May 2008.

32 Sihui Yearbook 1999; Sihui Yearbook 2005, p. 261.

33 Zhang Timing et al. (eds.), Sihui nianjian 1998 (Sihui Yearbook 1998), p. 212; Sihui Yearbook 2004, p. 232.

34 Xiao Chen, “2005 nian: fangjia gongjian nian” (“Year 2005: tackling high housing prices”), Zhongguo xinwen zhoukan (China News Weekly), No. 1–2 (2006), p. 22.

35 Xiaojing Zhang and Tao Sun, “China's current real estate cycle and potential financial risks,” China & World Economy, Vol. 14, No. 4 (2006), p. 64; Shuangmin Xu and Guangcai Mo, “Fangdichan ‘re’ zhong de difang zhengfu ‘jingjiren’ xingwei” (“The economic behaviour of local governments in the property fever”), Changjiang luntan (Changjiang Forum), No. 5 (2007), p. 45.

36 See Hong Zhang, “Tudi zhengyong guocheng zhong de difang zhengfu xingwei fenxi” (“An analysis of local governments' behaviour in land expropriation”), Zhonggong Zhejiang shengwei dangxiao xuebao (CCP's Zhejiang School of Party Committee Journal), No. 4 (2007), p. 68, for the miscellaneous fees pertaining to land transactions collected by various government departments.

37 Shumin Lin and Xilian Yang, “Woguo tudi shuishou tizhi gaige de sikao” (“Some thoughts on the reform of China's land tax system”), Xiangzhen jingji (Town and Township Economy), No. 3 (2006), p. 58.

38 Haokun Lin et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2003 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2003) (Guangdong: Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2003), p. 401.

39 See Shan Liu, “Zhengfu kaifashang shi chaodi de hengha erjiang” (“The government and property developers are partners in land speculation”), Zhonghua gongshang shibao (Chinese Industrial and Commercial Times), 5 June 2006, p. 3.

40 According to a local informant, the Square had taken over what were previously fish ponds and paddy fields.

41 Yang Yu, “Sihui tuxian ‘diwang zhi wang’ qianneng” (“Sihui reveals its potential to be a prime land district”), Xijiang ribao (Xijiang News), 5 December 2001.

42 “Woshi yipi zhongdian xiangmu jinxing jiancai huodong” (“A number of key projects launched in Sihui”), Sihui dianshitai (Sihui TV Station), 30 December 2008, available at, accessed 14 March 2009.

43 Xinmin Pu et al. (eds.), Guangdong tongji nianjian 2005 (Guangdong Statistical Yearbook 2005) (Beijing: Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 2005), p. 546; Zhaoqing Statistical Yearbook 2006, p. 133.

44 Haokun Lin et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2004 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2004) (Guangdong: Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2004), p. 469; Haokun Lin et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2005 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2005) (Guangdong: Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2005), p. 317; Haokun Lin et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2006 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2006) (Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2006), p. 378. See Zhaoqing Statistical Yearbook 2006, p. 165 for Sihui's revenue in 2004 and 2005.

45 Zhaoqing Statistical Yearbook 2006, p. 148; “Woshi quannian xinjian zhufang 27.8 wan pingfangmi,” (“2,780,000 square metres of newly constructed residential houses in a year in our city”), available at, accessed 15 May 2008. The average annual salary of workers was 16,096 yuan and that of peasants was 4,961 yuan in 2005. See Sihui Yearbook 2005.

46 See Lin George C. S. and Ho Samuel P. S., “The state, land system, and land development processes in contemporary China,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 95, No. 2 (2005), pp. 411–36; Ting Gong, “Corruption and local governance: the double identity of Chinese local governments in market reform,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2006), p. 90.

47 Sifu document no. 51 (2005); Sifu document no. 12 (2007).

48 “Sihui shidai guangchang shangmaocheng kaiye” (“Sihui Times Square commercial and trade centre opens for business”), Xijiang ribao (Xijiang News), 11 November 2006.

49 Xie Hui, “Sihui yidi 1860 wanyuan paichu chuang dankuai dipi chao dijia zuigao jilu” (“Land auctioned for 18.6 million yuan, setting a record for highest price above minimum for a single tract of land”), Nanfang ribao (Southern News), 6 January 2006.

50 “Dongcheng jiedao Taotang cunweihui ‘Tangkeng’ diduan” (“Land parcel at ‘Tangkeng,’ Taotang VC, Dongcheng street office”), 11 July 2007; “Sihuishi Dongcheng jiedao Xinchengqu fanghongdi xiaohaikou zhi shiyou canku diduan” (“Land parcel from the flood control xiaohaikou to the old petroleum warehouse, Xincheng district, Dongcheng street office, Sihui”), 11 July 2007; “Gonggao” (“Public notice”), 6 August 2007; “Gonggao” (“Public notice”), 8 August 2007. All available at Sihui Land Bureau website,, accessed 21 April 2008.

51 Intense competition for investment among localities in the region triggers “price wars,” which prompt local governments to undercut each other to offer the lowest possible land prices and preferential administrative arrangements to attract capital and investors to set up businesses and industries on their territory. Some local governments even offer land at zero cost. For instance, Jiangmen, Zhongshan in Guangdong used a zero land price to attract Foshan enterprises to relocate. Neighbouring Guangning county also adopted price cutting measures for investors. Ningfu document no. 98 (2007), “Guanyu yinfa Guangningxian gongye xiangmu touzi youhui banfa de tongzhi” (“A notice on the promulgation of preferential measures for the investment of industrial items in Guangning county”). See also Bu gengdi baohu yu jingji fazhan guanxi diaoyan zu, “Dangqian jingji jianshe zhong de ruogan xinqingkuang yu tudi liyong guanli ji gengdi baohu zhengce diaoyan baogao” (“New circumstances in today's economic construction, land use planning and management, and cultivated land protection policy: a research report), Guotu ziyuan tongxun (Land and Resources News), No. 12 (2002), pp. 37–43.

52 Agricultural land is one of the most valuable resources at the disposition of local officials. Ambiguous land ownership rights, low compensation for dispossessed farmers and the institutionalized political weakness of peasants facilitate the state's taking over of collectively owned agricultural land with relative ease. Yongshun Cai, “Collective ownership cadres' ownership? The non-agricultural use of farmland in China,” The China Quarterly, No. 175 (2003), pp. 662–80.

53 “Sihuishi guli yuanqu gongye fazhan zanxing banfa” (“Tentative measures to promote industrial zone development in Sihui city'”).

54 “Sihuishi gongye xiangmu touzi youhui banfa” (“Preferential measures for the investment of industrial items in Sihui city”).

55 Sifu document no.4 (2007), “Yinfa ‘2007 nian Sihuishi nashui dahu jiangli banfa’” (“Promulgation of ‘Measures to reward major tax payers in Sihui city in 2007’”).

56 Sifu document no. 5 (2007), “Sihuishi zhaoshang yinzi jiangli zanxing banfa” (“Sihui city's tentative measures for rewarding the attraction of business and investment”); Siban document no. 14 (2007), “Guanyu xiafa 2007 nian xishou waizi gongzuo jiangli banfa de tongzhi” (“Regarding the notice on the measures for rewarding the bringing in of foreign capital in 2007”).

57 Xiafu document no. 8 (2005), “Guanyu yinfa Xiamaozhen zhaoshang yinzi jiangli banfa de tongzhi” (“Regarding the notice to promulgate Xiamao town's measures for rewarding the attraction of business and investment”).

58 By 2003, there were 6,866 zones in China, with a total planned area of 38,600 sq km, more than double that of the preceding zone fevers in 1992 and 1997. See Zhang Pu and Li Xiaowen, “Fangzhi kaifaqu weifa quandi xinsikao” (“New thoughts on preventing illegal land enclosures by development zones”), Zhongguo tudi (China Land), No. 2 (2007), p. 15; “Guojia fazhan gaigewei quanwei jiedu kaifaqu qingli zhengdun gongzuo” (“The State Development and Reform Committee's authoritative interpretation of the reduction and restructuring of development zones”), Zhongguo touzi (China Investment), No. 5 (2007), p. 20.

59 Sihui Yearbook 2002, pp. 117, 198, 203–04, 208, 213, 215–16, 218, 220.

60 Jiao Gao, “Sihui shi gongye yuanqu jianshe de diaocha fenxi” (“A research and analysis on the construction of industrial zones in Sihui city”), Tongji yu yuce (Statistics and Projection), No. 4 (2002), pp. 5355.

61 Sihuishi guotu ziyuanju (Sihui city Land Resources Bureau), “Sihuishi tudi liyong zongti guihua, 1996–2010” (“Sihui city's land use master plan, 1996–2010”).

62 Guoban faming dian document no. 30 (2003); Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2004, p. 468.

63 “Shiweishi zhengfu yaoqiu jiakuai yuanqu jianshe” (“Shiwei city government urges the speeding up of development zone construction”), Zhaoqing nongye xinxi wang (Zhaoqing Agricultural News Web),, accessed 28 January 2005.

64 Some zones may be defunct.

65 Sihuishi guotu ziyuanju, “Sihuishi tudi liyong zongti guihua tiaozheng shuoming.”

66 See Sihui government website, “Gongye yuanqu” (“Industrial zones”), zsyz/gyyq/, accessed 20 April 2010.

67 In the initial stage, government organizations, usually termed development zone management committee (kaifaqu guanweihui) will use bank loans to expropriate land at low cost, or obtain land free of charge through state allocation. These management committees were authorized by local governments and were responsible for the requisition, conveyance, planning and approval of land use. The selected piece of land is then contracted to developers, usually companies funded and set up by local governments. These companies are mainly responsible for the initial development and infrastructure construction on the land. After building the basic infrastructure, the land will then be conveyed to investors. See Xinhai Lu, “Kaifaqu tudi ziyuan de liyong yu guanli” (“Land management and land use in development zones”), Zhongguo tudi kexue (China Land Science), Vol. 18 No. 2 (2004), p. 42; Runxian Han, “Kaifaqu yongdi tezheng ji zhengce jianyi yanjiu” (“A study of the characteristics of development zone land usage and policy suggestions”), Huabei guotu ziyuan (Huabei Land Resources), No.4 (2007), pp. 1517.

68 Jianxing Yu and Shengyi Yang, “Chenghishua jincheng jiasu beijing xia de zhengfu yuzheng tudi xingwei” (“Governments' land requisition behaviour against the backdrop of accelerating urbanization”), Shehui kexue (Social Science), No. 11 (2003), pp. 6369; Wei Du and Shanming Huang, “Nongdi chanquan zhuanhuan guocheng zhong de jiacha xianxiang: chengyin, xingzhi yu duice tanxi” (“Price difference in the transfer of agricultural land ownership: an examination of the causes, nature and countermeasures”), Xihua shifan daxue xuebao (Journal of Xihua Normal University), No. 4 (2005), pp. 2326.

69 More specifically, according to the “Measures to manage idle land,” land for construction qualifies as idle if the land user fails to start construction work on the lawfully obtained land within a stipulated time frame, or when the actual area under construction is less than one-third of the entire area to be constructed, or when the sum of investment is less than 25% of the total sum and has halted construction continuously for one year without approval. See Guotu ziyuanbu ling document no. 5 (1999), “Xianzhi tudi chuzhi banfa” (“Measures to manage idle land”), art. 2.

70 Shujin He and Guangquan Su, “Kaifaqu xianzhi tudi chengyin jizhi jileixing huafen” (“The casual mechanism and types of idle land in development zones”), Ziyuan kexue (Resources Science), Vol. 23, No. 5 (2001), pp. 1719; Linxing Zhu, “Tudi xianzhi wenti de yanzhongxing, chengyin ji qi chuzhi” (“The severity and causes of the idle land problem and countermeasures”), Tansuo yu zhengming (Exploration and Argument), No. 11 (2006), pp. 910.

71 Zheng Yuan et al. (eds.), Guangdong dizheng dichan nianjian 1998 (Yearbook of Guangdong Land Governance and Land Resources 1998) (Guangdong: Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 1998), p. 286.

72 Donghai Jiang et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2001 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2001) (Guangdong: Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2002), p. 267.

73 Ou Xing, “Sihui panhuo shangqian mu xianzhi tudi” (“Sihui revitalizes over one thousand mu of idle land”), Xijiang ribao (Xinjiang Daily), 8 June 2007,, accessed 11 June 2008; “Gonggao” (“Announcement”), Sihuishi guotu ziyuanju (Sihui Land Bureau),, 6 June 2007, accessed 11 June 2008.

74 Interview with town official in Xiamao, October 2007.

75 As with Sihui, Guangning also offered land at low cost and tax returns to attract investments. Ningfu document no. 98 (2007), “Guanyu yinfa Guangningxian gongye xiangmu touzi youhui banfa de tongzhi” (“A notice on the promulgation of preferential measures for the investment of industrial items in Guangning county”).

* Fieldwork for this study was partly funded by the National University of Singapore's Graduate Research Support Scheme. I am grateful to Lin Kun-Chin for very helpful comments, and Yan Jianhui and Wong Wai Han for research assistance.

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