Rapid economic growth involves significant changes in land use patterns. The paper uses the recent history of Chinese economic growth to highlight and interrogate the implication of such changes within the context of structural transformation. It argues that though land use change is an important underlying dimension of the massive structural transformation accompanying China’s explosive economic growth, the dominant theoretical literature on structural change is not cognizant of this fact. It does so by looking at arable land conversion in coastal provinces (from agriculture to industry or urban development), the ‘Grain for Green’ land set-aside program to prevent soil erosion in central and western areas, and ‘wasteland’ reclamation particularly in the northwest. In so doing, it also argues for an integrated analysis that recognizes that land has a type of scarcity that arises from its location and not just its total availability at the national level, i.e. land here is not the same as land there. The paper shows that contrary to the implicit understanding of structural change literature and indeed development theory, the transition of land in China between its uses defies the dominant linear and unidirectional narrative. The three processes discussed here show that land–and population dependent on its livelihoods on these lands–move in different directions and purposes and these movements are shaped and determined by state vision of progress and development.