Overview of Country Experience in Land Rights and Developmental Statehood: South Korea, Taiwan, China and Singapore

AuthorElias N. Stebek
Overview of Country Experience in Land
Rights and Developmental Statehood:
South Korea, Taiwan, China and Singapore
Elias N. Stebek
This article examines lessons that can be drawn from the land rights regimes of
four countries that have commendable economic performance. It highlights the
nature of land rights during the developmental statehood pursuits of three East
Asian states (South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) and a country that currently
pursues socialist market economic policy, i.e. China. The themes that are
considered include (a) lessons from the land rights regime in South Korea
including the salient features of developmental states, (b) Taiwan’s land reform
during the early 1950s and land requisition for industrial use, (c) China’s land
rights regime and administrative laws, and (d) land rights in Singapore and
entrepreneur perceptions about its institutions. These countries are chosen due
to their relevance to the Ethiopian land law regime. The article highlights how
South Korea and Taiwan carried out effective land reform by redistributing
private land rights without resorting to nationalization. It is argued that neither
the notion of state ownership of land as practised in Singapore nor current
improvements in the scope of Chinese land use rights explain the denial of
economic value to land use rights.
Key words
Land use rights, developmental state, land reform, property rights.
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/mlr.v7i2.2
Since 1975, Ethiopia’s land laws have pursued an ideological path that was
significantly influenced by the Soviet Union and China. Land is still publicly
owned in Ethiopia despite the post-1991 shift toward the privatization of various
LL.B, LL.M, PhD; Associate Professor, St. Mary’s University, School of Graduate
Studies. Email: elstebek@gmail.com, eliasnr@smuc.edu.et
This article is a revised and expanded version of the fourth chapter of the research
titled “Property Rights Protection and Private Sector Development in Ethiopia” which
was submitted to the Private Sector Development Hub at the Ethiopian Chamber of
Commerce and Sectoral Associations. The author is grateful to the Private Sector
Development Hub for sponsoring the research in partnership with SIDA (Swedish
International Development Cooperation Agency).
208 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 7 No.2, December 2013
publicly owned enterprises and the policy declaration of market-based economic
policy. The Ethiopian government currently pledges to pursue the economic
policies of a democratic developmental state.
Country experience from selected countries can thus be relevant. The
experiences of South Korea and Taiwan are relevant because the path they have
undergone as developmental states until the 1970s and 1980s can inform the
pursuits of countries who are in the course of espousing the path. The current
land reform pursuits in China are relevant because they indicate the changes that
are being made in a country that has not yet disclaimed (the Marxist version of)
socialism, but still considers its economic system as socialist, with Chinese
characteristics. Even if Singapore is a city state which is drastically different
from countries like Ethiopia, the economic value given to land use rights in the
context of public ownership of land renders its experience relevant to Ethiopia.
1. Features of Developmental States: The South Korean
1.1 Salient features of developmental states
The policy setting of developmental statehood in South Korea (highlighted in
this section) informs the discussion on land rights (in Section 2) that prevailed
during the 1960s and 1970s. These decades mark the initial years of economic
take-off for South Korea, after which the country’s legal regime progressively
marched onto a path of lesser state involvement. A brief discussion of the
features of developmental states (with South Korea as an example)1 is meant to
offer an overview of the policy framework in which land rights were formulated
in South Korea during its land reform of the 1960s and thereafter.
The overall property rights index of developmental states shows that they
rank higher than other Asian States. Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea
and Taiwan rank as the highest in comparison to all countries in Asia.2 The
scores are 90 each for Hong Kong and Singapore, 80 for Japan and 70 each for
South Korea and Taiwan. A developmental state goes extra miles (beyond day
to day state functions) and involves itself in pursuits of creating conducive
conditions for the development and economic performance of the private sector.
What characterizes a developmental state does not relate to restrictions it
imposes on private property rights, but its level of state intervention in
1 The scope of this article does not allow an elaborate discussion on the path undergone
by all East Asian developmental states during their economic take-offs.
2 a/South-Korea/property-rights-index>,
accessed: 03 August 2013.
Overview of Country Experience in Land Rights and Developmental Statehood 209
empowering and supporting economic actors while at the same time retaining its
autonomy from rent-seeking individuals and companies among economic actors.
The mainstream argument in favour of the non-interventionist minimal state
and the need for wider space for market mechanisms is the following:
As states expand their size, their range of functions, and the amount of
resources they control, the proportion of economic activity that becomes
incorporated into rental havens will increase correspondingly, and economic
efficiency and dynamism will decline. Conversely, to the degree that the
economic power and prerogatives of the state can be curtailed, prospects for
growth, efficiency, and welfare will be enhanced. Therefore, the sphere of
state action should be reduced to the minimum, and bureaucratic control
should be replaced by market mechanisms wherever possible.3
This, however, assumes the existence of the conditions for the effective
operation of what Adam Smith regarded as the ‘invisible hand4 of market
mechanisms that operate in the interest of the common good while everyone
pursues his/her self-interest. The caveat in this regard is the need to consider the
two assumptions of being informed and being rational that are inherent in Adam
Smith’s notion of utmost freedom of exchange based on self-interest. Smith
envisaged “rational choice” that presupposes informed self-interest and rational
decisions that give due respect to the legitimate interest of others.
… [A]ccording to Smith, men do not always act in their own interest. They
can be mistaken about what it is (as when they are not as thrifty as they
should be). When they know their interest they can be mistaken about what
will best serve it (as when they overestimate the chance of success in an
occupation). Or they may not consult their interest at all (as when the pursuit
of pleasure drives them to ruin).5
Free market envisages exchange of goods/services which presumes the
capability, opportunity and access for individuals, legal persons and economic
systems to produce the goods and the services to be marketed. In other words,
the one on the buying end should also be able to produce and sell goods and/or
3 Peter B. Evans (1989), “Predatory, Developmental, and Other Apparatuses: A
Comparative Political Economy Perspective on the Third World State”, Sociological
Forum, Vol. 4, No. 4, p. 564.
4 “In the Wealth of Nations, Smith writes of an invisible hand in the course of describing
a particular condition that may or may not be present in a transaction on a competitive
market. The condition is that in which a man who intends to benefit only himself in a
particular way may, in the act of procuring that benefit, produce a benefit of a
different kind for everyone including himself.” William D. Grampp (2000), “What
Did Smith Mean by the Invisible Hand?” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 108, No.
3 (The University of Chicago Press, June 2000), p. 443.
5 Id., p. 444 [citing (Wealth of Nations, pp. 346, 123, 907)]

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