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Law of the Land

As an increasing number of dispossessed rural women fight for their rights, the central government has adopted a proactive approach in safeguarding women’s equal access to land

By Yu Xiaodong , Xie Xuewei Updated Mar.1

Born and raised in a village in Zhuji County, Zhejiang Province, Zhou Xiaoyu was entitled to a tract of the village’s farmland. As China’s economy developed and Zhejiang became one of the most prosperous provinces in China, the village experienced several rounds of land appropriation. Each time, Zhou got her due share of the government compensation.  

But after Zhou got married in November 2020, everything changed. As the village went through another round of land appropriation in July 2021, the village committee told Zhou she was no longer considered a member of the village collective and was not entitled to a share of the government compensation, as she had married an outsider.  

Zhou’s husband is from Sichuan Province, and by the time they got married, he had lived in Zhejiang for 11 years. After their marriage, the couple decided to live in Zhou’s home in the village and soon started a family. Zhou told NewsChina that it is ridiculous that she could be deprived of her land rights just because she married someone from outside the village, and that it violates the principles of gender equality as male residents are not subject to similar rules.  

‘Married-out’ Women 
Zhou is one of the millions of so-called waijianü, or “married-out women” in rural China who lost their land rights from their home villages after getting married. Under Chinese law, farmland is collectively owned by each village, legally recognized as a “rural collective economic organization.” After the land reforms of the 1980s, the collectively owned farmland was allocated to members of each village according to the size of each household.  

To keep pace with the fluctuations in the population, villages redistribute farmland periodically, in many cases every 30 years. The rural collective can also hold assemblies to decide on matters regarding land use and distribution of dividends, as well as proceeds resulting from land acquisition and appropriation, with a two-thirds majority of its members.  

Legally, a female villager is entitled to the same land rights as a male. However, things become complicated when they get married. In traditional Chinese culture, a wife is considered a member of her husband’s family. In terms of land rights, a woman is entitled to land in her husband’s village, but no longer in her home village. Conversely, a man can keep his land rights in his birth village if he moves away as long as he does not change his household registration. 

The notion is so strong that it led to the creation of an infamous old saying – “a daughter married away is like water splashed away,” which is still widespread in parts of Chinese society, especially in rural areas. In many villages, once a woman gets married to a non-villager, she is automatically considered an outsider even when she continues to live in the village and does not change her household registration. While many are able to uphold the right to live on their residential plots, they are deprived of other land rights and benefits such as rural cooperative medical insurance and voting rights for village officials.  

For Zhou and other women whose husbands joined them in their villages, it means they lose their land rights overnight. Even for those who follow the traditional custom of moving into their husbands’ villages, they may have to wait for up to 30 years for the reallocation of farmland to be conducted before they get their share in the new village.  

Women who divorce or are widowed face similar problems, as their husband’s villages take back their land rights, while their birth village refuses to reinstate their entitlements.  

According to a survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics in 2010, 21 percent of rural women were landless, 9.1 percent higher than rural men. Among landless women, 27.7 percent of them lost their land due to a change of marital status. By comparison, only 3.7 percent of landless men lost their land due to a change of marital status.  

No similar survey was conducted after that, but it is believed the issue has become ever contentious as more rural women refuse to remain silent. Many have filed court complaints and sued village councils and local governments.  

Self-Governance Equality 
Li Lixia, a lawyer from Beijing-based Qianqian Law Firm that focuses on public interest lawsuits, told NewsChina there has been a surge in complaints and lawsuits filed by “married-out women” in recent years. Since 2004, the law firm has received more than 3,000 such complaints involving over 100,000 affected people, Li said.  

But many women found that both local governments and the court system tend to adopt a hands-off approach regarding their complaints. Zhou Xiaoyu, who has fought her case for more than two years, told NewsChina that she first filed a complaint with the township government, but was told that her dispute with the village committee falls in the realm of “self-governance” of village affairs in which the government could not intervene.  

She then sued the village committee in a local court. It refused to hear her case four times. At the fifth attempt, the court ruled against Zhou. She appealed and lost, but has already applied for a retrial with Zhejiang Provincial Higher People's Court.  

In the ruling against Zhou, both local governments and courts cited the Organic Law of the Villagers Committees, which stipulates that a village committee is “a mass organization of self-governance at the grassroots level” established “on the basis of the residential distribution of villagers and the collective ownership relationships of land,” and that the government “may not interfere with the affairs that lawfully fall within the scope of self-government by villagers.”  

Zhou’s experience is typical for the increasing number of “married-out women” who have decided to stand up against stereotypes and fight for their rights.  

A judge in a county-level court from Henan Province who requested anonymity told NewsChina that a guiding principle for judges within the province is to uphold the “self-governance” status of village committees, which means there is little chance for “married-out women” to win lawsuits when it comes to disputes with their villages.  

The judge said that a major concern is one ruling against a village committee would set a precedent, which could lead to an explosion of lawsuits given the enormous number of similar disputes accumulated in the past few decades. This could not only overwhelm the local court system but also cause social disturbances.  

Many Chinese legal experts consider that “self-governance” does not include the power to deprive married women of their land rights, as it violates the principle of gender equality enshrined in the country’s constitution.  

“This practice reflects a deep-rooted patriarchal culture in rural collectives,” Li Huiying, a retired professor from the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, told NewsChina.  

“From the patriarchal perspective, the distribution and inheritance of family property center around sons, and is irrelevant to daughters,” Li said. “Under such a culture, only males are considered permanent residents of the village and females are deemed as transient residents, with their identities and property rights subject to change depending on their relationship with men.”  

“Women are essentially deemed as appendages to men, who do not have independent property rights, which is against the principle of rule of law,” Li added.  

The All-China Women’s Federation issues 10 typical cases related to the protection of women’s and children’s rights and interests, Beijing, December 28, 2021. (Photo by VCG)

Conflict of Interests 
Other legal experts argue that members of the village committee should not have the power to deprive the land rights of other village members. When a member of a village loses their land rights, their land and dividends can be redistributed among the rest of the villagers, which provides strong economic incentives for the rest of the village to vote against “married-out women” in relevant disputes.  

This is why the regions with the most numerous and fiercest land disputes involving married women are some of the most prosperous, such as the eastern Yangtze River Delta and the southern Pearl River Delta. It seems counterintuitive from the cultural perspective, as these regions are considered much less culturally conservative than China’s less-developed inland regions.  

According to Yin Huihuang, a social scientist from Wuhan University, it is because in more developed regions, land is more valuable and there are also more infrastructure and urbanization projects, leading to substantial incomes and benefits for village members due to land requisition and appropriation.  

Li Huiying believes the problem should be solved by legislation, rather than leaving it to each village in a case-by-case approach, which introduces great uncertainty about women’s land rights.  

In the past years, local authorities have made sporadic efforts to defend the land rights of “married-out women.” In 2003, a court in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, released a guideline for judges to rule in favor of “married-out women” and other women who lost their land rights due to a change of marital status. In 2008, Nanhai District of Foshan, Guangdong Province released a decree on safeguarding gender equality regarding land rights.  

In Panyu District in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, courts handled 845 non-litigation administrative enforcement cases regarding land rights disputes involving “married-out” women between 2018 and April 2020, resulting in 937 women reclaiming their land dividends, which amounted to a total value of 17.8 million yuan (US$2.5m).  

Unfortunately, the impact of these isolated efforts remains limited, prompting calls for legislation to govern the functioning of village collectives, including the criteria for acquiring and losing membership to the collective.  

New Hope 
It appears that the central government has taken a more proactive approach regarding this issue. On December 27, 2022, a draft of the Rural Collective Economic Organization Law was first submitted for deliberation and public comments.  

The draft law stipulates six scenarios in which a member of a village collective could lose their membership, including being deceased, losing Chinese citizenship, voluntarily exiting the rural collective, becoming a public servant, obtaining membership of another rural collective, and “other scenarios according to relevant laws and regulations.”  

Regarding married women, they would not lose their memberships in their birth village collective unless they have obtained membership of their husband’s village collective. The draft law also specifically stipulates that women in rural collective economic organizations will not lose their membership due to divorce or widowhood, though it falls short of mentioning getting married. 

In a deliberation session held by the National People’s Congress, Deng Li, an NPC delegate and a former senior officer of the All-China Women’s Federation, advised that to close any loopholes, the law should be more assertive and specifically stipulate that women will not lose their membership in their home rural collectives unless they fall into the above-mentioned categories. 

According to Wu Zhaojun, an associate professor from China Agricultural University in Beijing who participated in the drafting of the law, there will be another revision in December 2024, and the law could become effective within two years.  

Protection of land rights for “married-out women” regained traction following a report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China released in October 2022, which reiterated that the Party will remain committed to the fundamental national policy of gender equality and protect the lawful rights and interests of women and children.  

On November 1, 2023, the All-China Women’s Federation and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) showcased six major administrative prosecutorial cases in which the SPP, China’s top prosecutor and legal supervisory agency, upheld the land rights of “married-out women.” Analysts believe this development sends a clear signal that the central government will take more assertive actions in safeguarding women’s land rights.  

According to the judge from Henan Province, the six cases instill added confidence in courts at both the provincial- and county-level to rule in favor of “married-out women.” He expects the central government will release a formal guideline or legal interpretation regarding land rights disputes between “married-out women” and village committees.  

For Zhou and many other women who have been fighting for their rights for years, these new developments appear to be the light at the end of a long tunnel. “It has increased my confidence and determination to continue my fight,” Zhou said.