By Zhao Wei, Qiu Lihua (China Features)
As urbanization and new factories devour more and more rural land over the last few years, presenting a threat to the country's food safety, the Chinese government is casting worried glances at the nation's shrinking hectares of farmland.
China, which supports 22 percent of the world's total population with just 10 percent of the world's total farmland, must focus its land use policy on curbing the expropriation of land for construction projects and on using existing farmland in a more efficient manner, said Wang Xiaoguang, a senior economist with the National Development and Reform Commission.
With the population expected to reach 1.4 billion in three years from now, the government determined in 2006 that the absolute bottom line for arable land was 120 million hectares if it was to be able to grow enough grain to feed everyone in the country.
One way to curb the problem is to persuade farmers to use land more efficiently and to start living "up" rather than "out", Wang said.
Ma Youming moved into a new flat with his wife and son six months ago. He said, "I'm not a farmer any more, now I work for a company. Most of my fellow villagers have started up small businesses or are hiring themselves out as day laborers."
The 42-year-old Ma said his village Xinchang in Taizhou of eastern China's Zhejiang Province, had 875 people in 250 families, who had lived in an untidy, poorly planned environment for years.
But the villagers realized that the village did not have enough land for them to build new homes after they became richer.
So they invited professionals from Zhejiang University, in the provincial capital of Hangzhou, to help them. In 2003, the professionals drew up a new plan for the village with land set aside for public wonders: apartments for the former farmers rather than houses on a section of land.
Village head Yu Zheng said that by going up in the air they have increased per-capita living space from 37 to 82 square meters. And "we have land left for commercial development. We've built shops with a combined floor space of 2,500 square meters, and are preparing to build a 19-storey building to rent out."
Last year, the village business garnered 1.5 million yuan (200,000 U.S. dollars) in annual income, and the figure is likely to reach 2.5 million yuan (330,000 U.S. dollars) this year, Yu said.
Ma Youming is satisfied with his new home. "We don't need to worry about the property management of our apartment building for it is paid for by the village business. And we don't have to pay to give our neighborhood a green look either."
Yu said scientific planning and the efficient use of limited land resources have transformed people's lives.
A report from Zhejiang Research Institute of Development and Reform says rural houses in the province use land too capriciously. If the land for housing is used more efficiently and scientifically, at least 100,000 hectares of land can be reclaimed for farming, equivalent to 5.7 times the land devoted to construction projects last year in the whole province.
Experts on rural problems say, even if decentralized living has been around for thousands of years, houses spread out higgledy-piggledy in rural areas occupying vast plots of land are inappropriate for modern Chinese conditions. The campaign "Trade your rural house for an apartment", being rolled out in the economically-developed coastal regions, could save 40 percent of land used for home construction, mitigating the threat to farmland and triggering consumer demands among the former farmers.
However, experts say that "apartments for farmers" work best in coastal regions and suburbs of large and mid-sized cities where manufacturing and service industries flourish. Many years will pass before they are adopted in underdeveloped western regions.
Authorities in neighboring Fujian Province took the theme of this year's national land day on June 25 － "efficient use of land and preserving farmland" － to heart. They compiled rural housing charts, settling on 15 approved architectural housing styles that suit the climatic, geological and economic conditions in southern regions, as well as the living habits of coastal and mountainous areas in the province.
They distributed the charts to 100,000 rural households in the province and have helped 37,000 households build satisfactory cost-effective homes in a land-efficient manner.
Land efficiency does not stop with humans. New-style livestock pens have also been built to save land.
The Xinling Farming and Animal Husbandry Co. in Jinjiang of Fujian has built three five-story buildings for pig raising, each for 2,000 pigs. After female pigs become pregnant on the fifth floor, they descend by lift to the fourth floor to give birth. Piglets are nurtured on the same floor, and after they "grow up", they take the lift down to the other three stories to be raised there.
Residents at Hongjian Village of Shaoxing County, east China's Zhejiang Province, are playing billiards in front of their new homes. The 200-odd households of former farmers now live in four apartment buildings. The centralized living pattern helped save land of 3.33 hectares.
Pigs live in a multi-storey building, drink purified water and take lifts to go upstairs and downstairs at a livestock breeding base in Harbin, capital city of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. It is believed the new method of raising pigs is able to help save farmland.
Efficient use of land is one barrel in the government shotgun, and the other involves tightening controls over shady land deals to prevent further encroachments on farmland.
Efforts to save land have begun to pay off. According to the Ministry of Land Resources, China had 122 million hectares of farmland in 2006, down 307,000 hectares or 0.25 percent from the 2005 level. But 367,000 hectares had been converted back into farmland, 42 percent more than the total area of land expropriated for construction purposes last year.
This is Jiangsu Tieben Iron and Steel Company Limited, a private company that was located in Changzhou City, east China's Jiangsu Province, and occupied nearly 400 hectares of land without goernment approval.
China's population of 1.3 billion demand approximately 500 million tons of grain annually, or more than 300 kilograms per capita. Last year the nation's grain production was 490 billion tons or so. In other words, the 122 million hectares of farmland provides just enough to feed the 1.3 billion people.
"Grain production needs to increase in line with the growth in population. China cannot afford any further shrinkage in farmland," said Chen Qizhou, head of a research center under the Ministry of Land Resources.
Chen pointed out that China's population would grow to 1.4 billion by 2010. The figure of 120 million hectares of farmland is a minimum that cannot be squeezed.
To improve land management, China has launched a second national land survey due to be completed in 2009. It has also passed the property law, which enshrines special protection for farmland and strictly restricts the expropriation of farmland for construction purposes.
Construction of villas, golf courses and training centers for governmental institutions and state-owned companies has been at least temporarily banned.
In April, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Land Resources and the Ministry of Construction made a joint announcement on development-zone projects. They said the number of development zones in China had decreased from 6,866 to 1,568 and new provincial-level development zones would not be approved. The move targets poor use of land by unqualified development zones.
In the meantime, China is putting together a nationwide land supervision regime and has set up 9 regional bureaus.
According to the Ministry of Land Resources, less land was approved for construction projects last year. Yet, the ministry admitted that 131,077 land-for-construction project cases were detected nationwide in the same year, up 17.3 percent on the previous year. They involved nearly 100,000 hectares of land, up 76.7 percent, including 43,000 hectares of farmland.
Observers noted that although land control policies are well established in China, local governments' obsession with GDP growth, poor policy execution and low penalties for rural violations have conspired to increase the number of infringements.
Zou Yuchuan, a national political consultant, noted that land use and land protection do not figure in the performance assessment system for local officials, who are eager to make "achievements" in their political careers.
Experts suggested that the current land law should be amended to curb local governments' power to approve land use projects and to institute an effective accountability system. Also, they said that a mechanism should be created to encourage the efficient use of land.