An Institutional Analysis of the Chinese Land Conversion Process

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Formally, China has a highly centralized system to control the conversion of farmland to non-farming uses. Its rigidity and other problems, however, have led to a large informal and decentralized market that serves to accommodate the demand for developable land. This dissertation, based on a case study in a county on China's eastern coast, finds that the informal land market has played an essential role in promoting local economic growth, improving the financial situations of local governments and villages, and benefiting some low-income people. As far as economic efficiency is concerned, the Chinese land system functions reasonably well given the existing institutional arrangements, though at high transaction costs. However, the land conversion process, governed largely by the law of the jungle, is highly unfair because it favors the powerful, the bold and the wealthy.

  The recent piecemeal policies by China's national government to fix the system have produced few positive or even negative effects. The dissertation concludes that the success of future attempts to improve the land conversion system hinges on the willingness and capability of the national government to change the rules of the game in a fundamental way.