Central Planners Are Paper Tigers


More freedom comes to China

Anxious at the spreading unrest among farmers left behind in the rush to get rich, China's Communist Party leaders…unveiled sweeping reforms to give its 730 million or more rural residents more say in what they do with their land….

Approved at a twice-a-year plenum of the party's Central Committee earlier this month, the scheme will allow farmers to transfer their land-use rights and to join share-holding entities with their farmland. The policies, still lacking in crucial details, effectively give farmers -- rather than village leaders -- the authority to decide how to use their land.

Tens of thousands of peasant protests erupt each year and nearly half are linked to land grabs by local officials who see a chance to make money by turning over land on the outskirts of towns and villages to developers.

This isn't the first time disobedience from below has forced China's leaders to allow more economic liberty. As Gordon Chang pointed out two years ago,


We now know Deng as a reformer, and we credit him and the Communist party for debating, then planning, and finally executing the startling transformation of Chinese society. Yet the truth is that reform progressed more by disobedience than by design. Deng began his tenure in adherence to orthodox Communist economics, by trying to implement a ten-year plan. But his early failure to meet the plan's goals forced him to back away and permit individual initiative, at first under strict rules. Peasants on large collective farms, for example, were allowed to form "work groups" to tend designated plots, but it was specifically prohibited for just one family to make up a "work group." The prohibition did not last: in clear violation of central rules, families started to till their own plots, and local officials looked the other way.

Subterfuge on the farm was followed by subterfuge in towns and cities. Although private industry was strictly forbidden, entrepreneurs flourished by running their businesses as "red hat" collectives: private companies operating under the guise of state ownership. Such defiance would once have been unthinkable. By Deng's time, frustrated bureaucrats and countless individuals, including some of the poorest and most desperate citizens in China, were ready to take the next step -- ignoring central-government decrees and building large private businesses that now account for at least 40 percent of the Chinese economy. This became China's "economic miracle," brought to fruition even as government officials remained holed up in their offices in Beijing, preparing meticulously detailed five-year plans.

Today, Chang notes, "virtually every segment" of Chinese society ("except, of course, senior Communist leaders and wealthy entrepreneurs") regularly joins in much more public protests. "Almost anything, whether or not it is a genuine grievance, can trigger a sit-in, demonstration, or riot against party officials, village bosses, tax collectors, factory owners, or township cadres." The new extension of rural property rights is among the results.

Elsewhere in Reason: More comments on Chang's article.