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China outlines land reform plan

October 20, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — After a string of mixed signals, China announced a broad land reform plan Sunday that in theory will allow farmers to transfer or lease their land, removing one of the last major planks of Chairman Mao Tse-tung's collective revolution.

Chinese farmers have been handicapped for decades by a communist system that has allowed them to own their crops but given them little control over the farms.

Economists and rural experts say the long-discussed overhaul could provide legal authority to secure loans, invest in irrigation, expand plot sizes and otherwise boost agricultural productivity. Those changes would give farmers the potential to earn more, benefiting a population that has lagged far behind its urban counterparts.

The announced changes, which face huge implementation challenges, could also reduce the social tension and riots resulting from a system that has tolerated massive land grabs by corrupt local officials in league with developers.

"This is potentially the real deal," said Scott Rozelle, a senior fellow at Stanford University. If enacted, "it gives a household a very valuable asset that it can collateralize or sell."

Currently, farmers have 30-year limited rights to use their land, with real power held by village collectives, Mao-era entities headed by local Communist Party secretaries.

China's ever-vigilant propaganda ministry prepared the nation for a policy shift in early October by stepping up coverage of rural reform issues in the state media. It also arranged a widely publicized trip to impoverished Anhui province by President Hu Jintao, who was quoted as telling farmers they would soon enjoy more control over their destiny.

Then coverage of the issue died away.

Some analysts suspect that Hu faces strong resistance from Communist hard-liners fearful this step will transfer too much power to the marketplace from local officials and industrial groups that benefited under the old rules.

The plan was worked out at this month's party meeting, part of a push to double rural disposable income by 2020.

Although analysts expressed cautious optimism, they warned that reforming a dysfunctional system affecting 740 million rural residents presents immense challenges.

"I don't know anything about land reform, but having more flexibility would be a good thing," said Hu Tongcai, a farmer in Shandong province. "I would consider selling my land if it was allowed."

Allowing farmers to transfer or even sell their land rights would create larger farms and free many to move to booming cities, but any mass migration would require vast numbers of new houses, schools and roads. Another concern is that many poorly educated farmers would sell their land for a pittance, leaving them rootless and impoverished.

The policy document outlined Sunday signals the Communist Party's intent, but implementation is far from assured and probably would take significant time, money and political will.

"I'm very confident it will be implemented," said Dang Guoying, a rural studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "There definitely will be resistance by local officials, but they can't resist it completely."

Even organizing land rights represents a herculean task. There are an estimated 1 billion plots of land held by 200 million farm families that would need to be surveyed and recorded. Contracts would have to be generated and disputes over borders negotiated.

China would also have to rewrite its rules to clarify how long farmers would hold title and whether they could transfer rights to heirs or sell them.

"The process is plagued by a lack of clarity," Rozelle said.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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