Land Expropriation in Urbanizing China: An Examination of Negotiations and Compensation

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A driving force of urban development is “accumulation by dispossession” which occurs through expropriation, privatization, and commodification of land. While the macro theory is now well refined, there is still much we do not know about how the underlying processes occur and how they shape economic development and urbanization. In this study, we analyze 2009 survey data of land expropriation cases across 12 Chinese cities, and find that expropriation takes different forms leading to specific outcomes. In half the cases, local governments followed central government policies requiring them to pay standard rates of compensation, but in the other half, local governments negotiated with farmers over the terms of expropriation. In the latter scenario, farmers were more likely to receive compensation higher than the standard rate, particularly if they were embedded in local power structures, which we argue could be counteracted if all households in a rural collective negotiate one agreement rather than individual agreements. These findings move us closer to understanding why accumulation through dispossession sometimes contributes to economic growth and social development, and at other times undermines urban development leading to social instability.