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June 25, 2005

What do the People's Republic of China and the USA Have in Common?

. . . A very limited concept of private property rights, in the wake of Thursday's USSC decision in Kelo v. New London.

I read in this week's Economist the following description of the real property rights of Chinese farmers, which I found helpful in putting the Kelo decision in the proper perspective:

Peasants have renewable land-use contracts valid for 30 years, but they cannot sell them. And even if villagers have a theoretical say in the disposal of their land, in practice, villages are usually controlled by Communist Party representatives whose duty is to enforce higher-level orders. Village chiefs elected by the villagers themselves have little power to obstruct them.

The party's refusal to allow private land ownership has eased the takeover of rural land for industrial use, urban expansion or the construction of transport infrastructure. But it has also created vast opportunities for corruption. Rural officials often pocket much of the money paid by developers as compensation for the land-lorn peasants, or make great profits by taking over land at little or no cost and selling it at market prices. Efforts in recent years to reduce the tax burden on peasants have given local governments even more incentive to sell land to boost their revenue.

Unlike here in the US, the Chinese government does not have to resort to the courts and declarations of eminent domain to seize peasant land. Instead, developers who have been granted rights to the land (often corruptly) hire thugs to remove the existing tenants by force. In a recent incident described in the Economist story, the Washington Post (who's Beijing correspondent Philip Pan broke the story) reported that six villagers were killed and 100 others seriously injured resisting attempts to be pushed off their land by developers seeking to build a facility to store coal ash for a new power plant. The WaPo even obtained amateur video footage of the attack and posted it on their web site. (However, the link did not work for me this evening.)

I suppose our system is better, where you can have your property taken from you nice and politely in court, rather than by gangs of toughs carrying pipes and shotguns. But I can't help but feel a little less free than I did before Kelo. There is something un-American about not being able to tell a real estate developer or some large corporation that wants your land to go pound sand. All across this country there are monuments to these stubborn fools who refused to sell, only to see a high rise development or factory go up right beside their modest building. (My favorite is the building housing Smith & Wollensky's restaurant in NYC.) Unfortunately, these individualistic anachronisms don't have much of a future anymore.

And no, I don't have much faith in the willingness or ability of state and local politicians to resist efforts by well capitalized developers and large corporations to screw the little guy out of their land, cheap. I thought that was what the Constitution was for.

June 25, 2005 at 05:18 PM | Permalink


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