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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2011

Yew Chiew Ping
East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. Email:
E-mail address:


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.

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2011

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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. 81112CrossRefGoogle Scholar; 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. 187–96Google Scholar.

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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. 13Google Scholar; 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. 458CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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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.

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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)Google Scholar.

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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]”).

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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. 47Google Scholar.

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.

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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. 68Google Scholar, 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. 58Google Scholar.

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

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. 3Google Scholar.

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 2001Google Scholar.

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. 546Google Scholar; 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. 469Google Scholar; Haokun, Lin et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2005 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2005) (Guangdong: Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2005), p. 317Google Scholar; Haokun, Lin et al. (eds.), Guangdong guotu ziyuan nianjian 2006 (Guangdong Land Resources Yearbook 2006) (Guangdongsheng ditu chubanshe, 2006), p. 378Google Scholar. 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. 411–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar; 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. 90Google Scholar.

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. 662–80Google Scholar.

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. 20Google Scholar.

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. 5355Google Scholar.

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. 468Google Scholar.

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. 42Google Scholar; 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. 1517Google Scholar.

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. 6369Google Scholar; 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. 2326Google Scholar.

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. 1719Google Scholar; 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. 910Google Scholar.

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. 286Google Scholar.

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

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”).

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