Book Review of Yi Wu’s Negotiating Rural Land Ownership in Southwest China


Negotiating Rural Land Ownership in Southwest China: State, village, family, by Yi Wu. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.  2018. Pp. xiii+282. $ 80 (hb); $28 (pb). ISBN-13: 9780824846770 and 9780824876807

This is an excerpt of the review of the book. Read the complete review here


In Negotiating Rural Land Ownership in Southwest China, Yi Wu discusses one of the most controversial issues in the study of rural China, the regime of land rights. She does this through a rich ethnography in Fuyuan County, a less-developed interior region in eastern Yunnan, Southwest China, conducted over a decade. Yi Wu attributes some of the issues around rural land in China, including land acquisition and the government intervention in agricultural production, to China’s unique land system that is based on “bounded collectivism” (p. 63). She uses the concept of bounded collectivism to refer to the landholding arrangement in China’s natural villages that is characterized by collective ownership of land, egalitarianism in land allocation, exclusive boundedness only within the natural village, and paradoxically, the dominant presence of the state.

The book consists of four parts in addition to the introduction and conclusion sections. It is in the first part that Yi Wu focuses on the key concept, bounded collectivism, by highlighting the analytical significance of the natural village, which is ‘a settlement community, the most basic rural residence unit in China’ (p. 5). By distinguishing it from the administrative village, the smallest unit in China’s current rural administrative structure, the author argues that natural villages maintain stability and continuity through a range of factors and mechanisms, including traditional social and ancestral practices as well as production activities (p. 40). Such factors and mechanisms enabled natural villages’ collective land management rights as production teams in the Mao era (1950s-1970s) and as village groups or administrative villages in the reform era.

In the next part, she discusses that the movement from collectivization to the Household Responsibility System (HRS) in the 1970s contracted farmland to rural households, but reserved the ownership right at the administrative village level. Later in the book, she argues that HRS results in conflicts between collective land ownership and the individual household’s land use rights. The former ‘continues to facilitate administrative intervention by the local government in agricultural production’ (p. 190) which makes farmers’ land use rights incomplete. The author also argues that China’s land market is largely controlled by the government, whereas market mechanisms can help peasants to better contest and negotiate with the government and rural communities in order to benefit more from land development.

Yi Wu’s book is an important ethnographic contribution to the study of how China’s current landholding system emerged. However, her vivid historical descriptions are accompanied by some important analytical gaps. For instance, she argues for the stability and the continuity of natural villages by describing how they became the basic units of land management despite the socialist state’s intervention. In her view, the boundaries of natural villages essentially remained intact at the expense of egalitarianism between farmland-poor and farmland-rich communities during the land reform when the People’s Republic of China was first founded. She also views the 1962 “Four Fixed” policy which assigned land, labour, farm animals, and tools to production teams as an achievement of the resilience and persistence of natural villages. However, the author leaves the readers wondering about the social and political dynamics behind the land reform and policy changes, and how the natural villages managed to keep their community boundaries.

Such gaps also pertain to the limits of limits of Yi Wu’s conceptualization of bounded collectivism. In the conclusion, the author rightly observes that the bounded collectivism in China’s rural land ownership defies the simplistic labels of socialism and post-socialism (p. 233). The incorporation of natural villages into socialist China’s rural administrative structure maintained their exclusive rights over community land and their collective identities, which challenges the Marxist-Leninist assumption of the party-state playing ‘the primary role in building the foundations of a socialist economy’ (p. 234). On the other hand, the reform of rural land property relations in the 1980s did not change the dominant presence of the state, neither did it lead to outright land privatization as in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. Nevertheless, the discussion of differences between China’s rural land system and the socialist/post-socialist systems stops at listing characteristics of these systems. Regrettably, rigorous examination of the dynamics of China’s landholding arrangement beyond the dichotomy of state domination and market determinism is missing from Yi Wu’s analysis. […]

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Xu Siyuan is at the College of Humanities and Social Development, Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, China.