Farmland Preservation in China

Chengri Ding, July 1, 2004

The fast pace of farmland conversion in the People’s Republic of China is causing alarm among top leaders concerned with food security and China’s ability to remain self-reliant in crop production. This loss of farmland is a direct result of China’s remarkable success in economic development over the past two decades, which has resulted in rapid urbanization and the conversion of enormous amounts of farmland into residential, industrial, commercial, infrastructure and institutional uses. Nearly a decade ago, Lester Brown asked, “Who Will Feed China?” in a book that drew attention to the importance of farmland preservation.

At first glance, visitors to China may not realize there is any problem with food supply or farmland protection because food seems to be abundant. Moreover, concern over China’s acute housing shortage has prompted many economists to prefer a policy that makes more farmland available for housing. Their arguments may be sound in theory. When one looks deeply at China’s land resources and projected growth, however, it becomes easier to understand the rationale for the country’s rigorous efforts to preserve its declining supply of farmland and recognize the farm-related issues and policy challenges that can be expected in the foreseeable future.

Tensions between Land and People

A map of China gives the false impression that land is abundant. Even though the total land mass of China is similar to that of the United States (9.6 and 9.4 million square kilometers, respectively), land suitable for human habitation in China is limited. About one-fifth of China’s territory is covered by deserts, glaciers and snow. Areas that average more than 2,000 meters above sea level and mountainous regions each account for one-third of China’s land, indicating a high level of land fragmentation. Thus, less than one-third of China’s land area is composed of the plains and basins where more than 60 percent of the population of 1.3 billion lives. There are fewer farms in China per capita than in almost any other country. China’s rate of per capita farmland occupation is 0.26–0.30 acre (depending on which official data are used), less than 43 percent of the world average. It is a staggering accomplishment that China is able to feed 20 percent of the world’s population with only 7 percent of the world’s farmland.

The relationship between the Chinese people and their land is further complicated by the uneven distribution of the population. The eastern part of China represents 48 percent of the nation’s territory, but includes 86 percent of China’s total farmland and nearly 94 percent of its population. By contrast, the western provinces feature vast and mostly unusable land. Henan Province, located near the center of China, has the nation’s highest population density. Henan is only one-sixtieth the size of the U.S., but its population is more than one-third of the U.S. population.

This east-west division also reflects striking differences in farmland productivity. In the east, farms generally reach their maximum potential yield, whereas farm productivity in the west is low, and it is difficult and expensive to improve productivity there. More than 60 percent of China’s farms have no irrigation systems, and most of those farms are located in the west. Regions with more than 80 percent of the nation’s water resources have less than 38 percent of the farmland. Around 30 percent of all farmland suffers from soil erosion, and more than 40 percent of farmland in arid and semi-arid regions is in danger of turning into desert.

It seems inevitable that the tensions between the Chinese people and the use of their land will only escalate in the next decade or two, driven in large part by the ambitious socioeconomic development goals set up by the Sixteenth Communist Party Congress in 2003. Those goals call for China’s GDP to be quadrupled and the rate of urbanization to reach 55 percent by 2020. Given the projected population growth from 1.3 billion to 1.6 billion, Chinese cities will become home to 200 to 350 million new urban residents. This remarkable increase in development will require land for all kinds of human needs: economic development, housing, urban services and so forth.

Farmland Preservation Laws

Two principal laws govern farmland preservation efforts in China. The Basic Farmland Protection Regulation, passed in 1994, requires the designation of basic farmland protection districts at the township level and prohibits any conversion of land in those districts to other uses. It also requires that a quota of farmland preservation should be determined first and then allocated into lower-level governments in the five-level administrative chains (the state, province, city, county and township). This important act represents the first time China has imposed a so-called zero net loss of farmland policy. This policy affects only basic farmland, so the total amount of basic farmland will not decline due to urbanization.



Components of Basic Farmland

  • Agricultural production areas (such as crops, cotton, edible oils and other high-quality agricultural products) approved by governments
  • Farmland with high productivity and good irrigation that have been exploited
  • Vegetation production areas for large and mid-sized cities
  • Experimental fields for science and educational purposes



There are two kinds of basic farmland protection districts. The first level consists of high-quality farmland with high productivity that cannot be converted to nonagricultural uses. The second level is good-quality farmland with moderate productivity that can be converted to nonagricultural uses, usually after a planned period of five to 10 years. The regulation further stipulates (1) if the conversion of land within farmland districts is unavoidable in order to build national projects, such as highways, energy production or transportation, the state must approve the conversion of land parcels of more than 82.4 acres and the provincial governments must approve those of less than 82.4 acres; and (2) the same amount of farmland lost to conversion must be replaced by new farmland somewhere else.

The second law, the 1999 New Land Administration Law, is intended to protect environmentally sensitive and agricultural lands, promote market development, encourage citizen involvement in the legislative process, and coordinate the planning and development of urban land. The law has two important clauses. Article 33 extends the application of the zero net loss farmland policy in the Basic Farmland Protection Regulation to all farmland. It stipulates that “People’s governments . . . should strictly implement the overall plans and annual plans for land utilization and take measures to ensure that the total amount of cultivated land within their administrative areas remains unreduced.” Article 34 requires that basic farmland shall not be less than 80 percent of the total cultivated land in provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government.

The law reinforces farmland preservation efforts by requiring approval from the State Council for any conversion of basic farmland; conversion of other farmland larger than 86.5 acres; and conversion of other land larger than 173 acres. It further encourages land development in areas that are considered wasteland or that feature low soil productivity. Although the law requires the zero net loss of farmland policy to be implemented at provincial levels, it is actually carried out at the city, county and sometimes township levels.

Assessment of the Farmland Policy

The goals of the farmland preservation laws are to limit development on farmland and to preserve as much existing farmland as possible. Land development patterns and urban encroachment into farmland continue unabated, however. Approximately 470,000, 428,000 and 510,000 acres were converted to urban uses in 1997, 1998 and 1999 respectively, and in 2001–2002 some 1.32 percent of remaining farmland was lost. The actual rate of farmland loss was probably far greater than those officially released numbers. For example, seven administrative units at the provincial level (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Hunan, Congqing, Jiangxi and Yunnan) reported net farmland losses in 1999.

On closer inspection, the negative impacts of China’s farmland preservation laws may outweigh the gains. These laws have been questioned because they affect other actions that create urban sprawl and the merging of villages and cities; destroy contiguity of urban areas; raise transportation costs; and impose high social costs resulting from clustering of incompatible land uses. More important, they push economic activities into locations that may not provide any locational advantage and adversely affect urban agglomeration, which ultimately affects the competitiveness of the local economy.

The designation of basic farmland is based primarily on the quality of soil productivity; location is not a factor. Because existing development has occurred near historically high-productivity areas, that land is likely to be designated as basic farmland whereas land farther away is not. New development thus results in leapfrogging development and urban sprawl and raises transportation costs, but also creates mixed land use patterns in which villages are absorbed within cities and cities are imposed on villages. These patterns are common in regions with high population density and fast growth rates, such as the Pearl Delta of Guangdong Province. The mixed village and city pattern aggravates an already underfunctioning urban agglomeration that results from a relatively high level of immobility in the population because of the hukou system, which gives residents access to certain heavily subsidized local amenities, such as schools.

By using soil productivity as the criterion for designating basic farmland, site selection for economic development projects becomes constrained, making business less competitive. This policy is also responsible for the ad hoc land development process and the creation of a chaotic and uncoordinated land development pattern. As a result, existing infrastructure use becomes less efficient and it costs more for local government to provide urban services. Overall, the urban economy is hurt.

Furthermore, developers have to pay high land prices, which they eventually pass on to consumers through higher housing prices or commercial rents. Land becomes more expensive because the law requires developers who wish to build on basic farmland to either identify or develop the same amount of farmland elsewhere, or pay someone to do so. The cost of this process will rise exponentially as the amount of land available for farmland is depleted, making housing even less affordable. In Beijing, for instance, land costs alone account for 30–40 percent of total development costs if a project is developed on farmland, but 60–70 percent if the project is developed in existing urban areas.

Perhaps one of the worst aspects of the farmland preservation laws is that they treat farmers unfairly. Land development is far more lucrative than farming, so farmers rigorously pursue real estate projects. In the early 1990s, for example, selling land use rights to developers could generate incomes that were 200–300 times higher than the annual yields from farm production. Farmers and village communes, eager to benefit from booming urban land markets, are lured to develop their farmland. The problem is that farmers whose land is considered basic farmland are penalized by this institutional designation that denies them access to urban land markets, even if their farms may enjoy a location advantage. Farmers from areas not designated as basic farmland are not similarly constrained. This inequitable treatment makes it difficult for local governments to implement effective land management tools and creates social tensions that complicate the land acquisition process, lead to chaotic and uncoordinated development, and encourage the development of hidden or informal land markets.

There are four reasons for the general failure of China’s farmland preservation policy. First, farmland preservation laws fail to give sufficient consideration to regional differences. Even at a provincial level some governments have difficulty maintaining a constant amount of farmland in the face of rapid urbanization. Land resources are extremely scarce in some provincial units, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Zhejiang, where development pressures are strong.

The second reason is the requirement that each of the five administrative levels of government (the state, provinces, municipalities, countries and townships) must maintain an arbitrarily determined percentage (80 percent) of basic farmland without the ability to adjust to pressures of demand and market prices. In some regions, demand is so high that officials look for various alternative ways to convert farmland into urban uses. The most common approach is through establishment of industrial parks, economic development zones or high-tech districts, usually on quality farmland areas at the urban fringe. This occurs for two reasons: to attract businesses and to raise land revenues by leasing acquired farmland to developers. There is a striking difference between the prices paid to farmers for their land and the prices for that same land when sold to developers.

Third, local officials almost always give economic development projects top priority and are easily tempted to sacrifice farmland or rural development to achieve a rapid rate of economic growth. As a result, farmland preservation efforts are doomed to fail wherever development pressure is present. This is not surprising since the farmland preservation laws fail to employ any price mechanisms or provide any financial incentives for either local governments or individual farmers to protect farmland.

The fourth problem is the absence of land markets or land rights in rural areas where Chinese governments tend to rely solely on their administrative power to preserve farmland but ignore emerging market forces in determining uses of resources.

Policy Challenges

In recognition of the importance of food security to China and the pressure of urban development on land supply, the Lincoln Institute is collaborating with the Ministry of Land and Resources on a project called Farmland Preservation in the Era of Rapid Urbanization. The objective of the project is to engage Chinese officials in evaluating this complicated issue and to design and implement farmland preservation plans that recognize regional differences and development pressures, and that introduce price mechanisms and respect for farmers’ rights.

First, three fundamental questions need to be addressed:

  • Would a policy to have zero net loss of farmland on a regional basis be better than separate policies in each of the five administrative levels of government, as is currently the case? If so, how are regions to be defined and how can Chinese officials make a regionwide policy work?
  • Is it better to have a policy of zero net loss of farmland productivity or a policy of zero net loss of land used for farming? If the former, how can such a policy on productivity be implemented?
  • How can farmland be preserved within the context of emerging land markets in rural areas and within a new institutional framework in which the rights of farmers are recognized?

For those interested in land use policies, few countries in the world offer as many dynamic and challenging issues as China. Engagement and dialogue between Chinese and American scholars, practitioners and public officials on these topics will be crucial to the final outcome.


Chengri Ding is associate professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Department at the University of Maryland and director of the Joint China Land Policy and Urban Management Program of the University of Maryland and the Lincoln Institute.




Brown, Lester R. 1995. Who will feed China?: Wake-up call for a small planet. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.