“The government here is so weak,” says my new friend Zhao Shan. Not a sentiment typically shared by much of the rest of the world about the People’s Republic of China, especially with respect to the strongest world economy, largest standing army, biggest population, most controlled currency, etc.

But Shan is talking about the ability of local government to manage and enforce land use, zoning and land rights between and amongst longtime residents, farmers, other government agencies, developers, squatters and others.

The international development expert Peter Ho has described China’s land title and rights system as “intentionally ambiguous.” Maybe so. Certainly there is a great deal of ambiguity here, intentional or otherwise, but these issues are extremely sensitive in a country that spent the first half of the last century in a paroxysm of war and chaos to reform what was essentially an unfair feudal land rights system. And then China spent the second half of the century trying to figure out how to fairly reform and administer those land rights.

All land in China is owned by the state or the collective (which actually derives its rights from the state, so pretty much all land is owned by the state one way or another). However, over the last 30 years, leases by companies and individuals of parcels of land have become more common, especially in urban areas for commercial development. The longest lease term is 70 years, and people generally believe that these leases are as good as fee title ownership and will be renewed.

The Nature Conservancy’s program in China is interested in helping the government create some sort of conservation tool that would provide permanent protection for biological values as land converts to more private use. This sort of strategy means exploring a number of options with various government agencies, private developers and local communities.

The fundamental problem in creating such a tool is that there are many different entities with a legitimate claim to control, manage or benefit from any particular parcel of land. So who does one make a non-development agreement with? Which agency has the most ability to enforce the terms of an agreement against the panoply of government entities, collectives, private parties etc, that could interfere with the property?

The good news is that the Chinese government agencies that we work with are willing to experiment in the public policy arena like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In fact, instead of having legislative hearings on proposed legislation, government official and policymakers actually prefer to try something out on the ground, to demonstrate whether it can work regardless of it’s current legality, then have the hearing and pass the enabling legislation to allow them to do it again.

China is not a place for those of us schooled in the black and white of extensive regulatory structures, clear jurisdictional lines and binary yes/no decisions. China is the country of maybe, show-me and other “grey” zones of creativity.

(Image: Scene from Haungshan (Yellow) Mountain, Anhui Province, China. Image credit: Chi King/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Really? It is hard to figure out who owns the land? That is kind of weird. Most people know who owns what. Ah, well. I hope this goes great!

  2. You have to make due with what you’ve got. On the one hand, the legal uncertainty and willingness to make it up as you go along opens some creative avenues to test and prove conservation strategies on the ground. Waiting for the lawyers and committees can be more trouble and frustration than its worth. Sometimes you run out of time.

    But that’s the flip side: uncertainty can work both ways. And it might be easier to develop or exploit a landscape than it is to designate or protect it. Much of the history of occupying the American West was “first-come, first-served.” The rule of law has its advantages — depending of course on who’s writing the laws and whether they can be enforced.

    Everybody in China knows corruption is a challenge and there’s funky overlaps between party officials and the private sector. Do the NGOs keep two sets of books to get things done? Businesses almost have to.

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