HAINING, China (Reuters) - Tales of protests by angry peasants whose land has been seized for a pittance by unscrupulous officials are commonplace in China.
But even as concern grows about the disappearance of arable land to feed 1.3 billion people, less noticed is the eagerness of other farmers, often in richer parts of China, to cash in their land and say goodbye to back-breaking toil in the fields.
Here in Haining, a rural town about 100 km (60 miles) west of Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta, more and more warehouses and workshops share the land with mulberry trees and rice paddies.
“Just look at these fields. Can you see anybody under 30 laboring on the land?” asked Zhou Weigang, a 53-year-old farmer, as he pointed to a flat expanse dotted by houses. “Planting the fields just has no future.”
Unlike farmers in other parts of China who regard their land as a safe harbor in case of hardship, Zhou and his neighbors are happy to sell.
His family recently received 23,000 yuan ($3,300) when the local community sold a parcel of land on which a chemical plant will be built.
“Land has to be turned into homes and factories,” Zhou said. “It’s called development.”
Five years ago, Zhou thought differently. Land was still important to him: the five members of his family earned the lion’s share of their income from farming.
But now he is confident about a future without land. The local private economy is booming, easing employment concerns.
Zhou’s son is a small merchant, buying and selling scrap leather that he transports in a newly purchased van.
His daughter-in-law, like most of the young women in Haining, works in a local leather garment factory earning a handsome monthly salary of 3,000 yuan.
His wife works at a small private workshop, and Zhou himself took a job at a plastic recycling works next door to his home.
The four monthly incomes are enough to finance a comfortable life away from the land. “My grandson will never be a farmer,” said Zhou, referring to his seven-year old grandson.
The creeping industrialization of the Yangtze River Delta highlights the conflict between China’s determination to remain largely self-sufficient in food and the relentless march of urbanization, which holds the key to rising living standards.
“The central government wants to keep enough arable land for strategic issues like food security, but local governments and farmers just see the financial gains they can get from the land,” said Liao Hongle with the Rural Economy Research Centre, a think-tank in Beijing under the Ministry of Agriculture.
“It’s a very serious problem in China’s rich coastal areas, like Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong, and rural areas surrounding large cities,” said Liao.
Disputes over land grabs or compensation to make way for a new factory or housing estate periodically turn violent across China. But some places like Haining have started programmes that provide something of a safety net for farmers who quit the land.
In Zhou’s case, if he sells part of his land-use rights, his family will have the option of putting the proceeds into an insurance scheme run by the local government.
For an individual payment of 15,000 yuan, women above 50 and men above 60 receive a monthly sum of 320 yuan.
“My wife has already started to get money from the last land sale, and I’ll be joining it for sure,” said Zhou.
For Renmin University professor Wen Tiejun, Haining holds up a mirror to modern China. Society’s stress on economic growth at all costs is gradually overriding concerns about food security and makes rapid urbanization an inevitable trend, he said.
“Rich areas all over China are turning arable land over to buildings and factories,” Wen said. “Local officials are in fact being encouraged to do just that, because the higher the GDP is, the better their chance of promotion.”
Chen Maoqing, 40, who lives in a nearby town, said he spent 160,000 yuan -- including 30,000 yuan in “fines” and bribes to village officials -- to build a 300 square meter warehouse on a rice field behind his own house. He was able to let the warehouse immediately for 23,000 yuan a year.
“You have to be quick to grab land. Once you’ve built on a parcel of land, you can pass it on from generation to generation,” said Chen, who has a 12-year-old son.
Registered officially as a farmer, Chen is entitled under Chinese law to a small plot of land. But he now works as a technician providing support to small local knitting factories.
Chen said he and his wife work 13 hours a day on average and take a holiday only during the Spring Festival every January or February. The couple made about 120,000 yuan last year.
“I hope the nearby development zone will expand, so the value of the land and houses will rise,” said Chen.
Editing by Alan Wheatley