There have been a lot of news stories lately about Chinese 'private' companies buying up vast tracts of farmland in Africa as part of a Chinese government food security plan. Yet how much sense does such a plan make? If there is a global food price shock (as in 2007-8), what makes China think those African nations would respect their property rights? And if they didn't, what could China possibly do to enforce them?
One thing to point out is that while some have characterised China's behaviour as 'land-grabbing' and made noises about 'neo-colonialism', this is quite misleading. Proper colonialists impose their own governance over the area they have 'grabbed' by whatever means. This is essential in order for them to hold onto that land as 'theirs'. In order to maintain that they legally own this property they need to be the ones who make and decide the laws in that area. And they need to be able to call on force if any of the natives starts objecting to that system of laws.
Yet all China has done is buy the land, usually from or through national governments. On the face of it, this is a neo-liberal rather than a colonial relationship. i.e. "Everything is for sale", not "everything is up for the taking by the more powerful country". Their companies own the land according to the property rights regime of the country concerned, rather than according to the property rights regime of China.
That means that what China can do with 'its' land, and any food it produces, is subject to the national laws of the country concerned, and the national politics which produces that. It seems quite possible, actually very likely, that this might deviate from the national interests of the Chinese government in the food-security of the Chinese people. For example, the standard response to the last global food price spike was for governments of food exporting countries worried about their own people's access to affordable food to ban or severely restrict exports.
If China's farmland acquisitions are intended to ensure China's food-security then it is precisely in the circumstances of a global food price spike that they would be important. Yet it is exactly in those same circumstances, when the Chinese people might not be able to get enough food on the international market because the usual food exporters are keeping their food for the domestic market, that their 'guaranteed' African food supply would be cut off. For what African government competent enough to guarantee property rights in the first place would allow its people to starve in order to maintain the property rights of foreigners? As the real colonial powers found out rather quickly, independent nations can and do nationalise things you thought were yours (like the Suez canal).
And there isn't much you can do about it. Legal claims - first through the relevant national courts, then international tribunals - would be too slow in the context of a food crisis and don't have an effective enforcement mechanism anyway. A military invasion to defend private property claims would be illegal and roundly condemned (as with Suez). It would also be immensely silly. Imagine China's military descending at immense cost on Ethiopia, fighting a war, and then sending soldiers out to harvest rice and then flying it out on military transports. If it ever came to that, they would probably do better to invade one of the rice producing countries next door to them and save having to go through the whole baloney about being the true owners of the food.
All in all, China's food security plan looks rather foolish. Yet perhaps we are looking at the wrong things. We have been assuming that China's purchase of farmland is just a standard transaction in the neo-liberal model (here's the money - here's the title deed). But when one looks closely it turns out to be part of an extended patronage relationship between the Chinese state and African politicians. What China seems to have done is to colonise the governments of the countries concerned, which is much easier than colonising the whole country.
First, the land transactions take place within the context of a comprehensive programme of development aid and other largesse from China. They are thus clearly understood by both sides as being inseparable from this ongoing patron-client relationship, and thus as being more than a mere land transaction.
Second, the huge tracts of farmland are typically bought from or through the national governments. This is the really clever part. I find it unlikely that such large areas of arable land are actually just lying vacant in Africa. What seems to happen is that the national politicians in power find various ways to create such vacant land by removing those already on it. They have a personal financial incentive to do so cheaply, without proper legal process or reasonable compensation, because they get a share of the 'profits' from selling the land to China. (This also explains why the details of these transactions are so opaque.)
What this achieves is to bind the national politicians who organised the land sales to the Chinese government through their own corruption. The citizens who may protest and try to bring legal action about the land
grabs, particularly if food suddenly becomes more expensive, will be
protesting against their own national politicians who actually took the land away, as much or more than
against China. What China needs for its food security plan to work is for its property rights to be respected even during a food crisis. By implicating local politicians in the original sin against the rule of law involved in the land sales it aligns their private interests with China's interests in upholding the pretence of legality. For if the local politicians were to argue now that the land acquisitions went against the national interest and should be suspended, they would be admitting to acting against the national interest themselves.