China’s Communist Party approves rural land reform

BEIJING (AP) âÄî ChinaâÄôs communist leaders have approved a key rural reform that for the first time will permit farmers to lease or transfer their land in a change aimed at raising rural incomes and speeding migration from the farm to the cities. The policy change, approved a week ago at a high-level meeting but announced in detail Sunday, has been widely anticipated. It comes as the Communist Party looks for bold, new policies as a way to celebrate this yearâÄôs 30th anniversary of the economic reforms that vaulted China from poverty to near superpower status. The reforms, launched by Deng Xiaoping in late 1978, began with the breakup of communal farmland, parceling plots out to households. Despite that breakthrough, rural farmland was never fully privatized, with families given limited-term use rights and the village and local officials holding sway over its use or transfer. While the new policy stops short of outright privatization, it gives approval to leasing and transfers âÄî sales in all but name âÄî that have become common in recent years and should accelerate those practices. Markets will be set up to allow farmers to subcontract, lease, exchange and swap their right to use the land, according to a policy document carried by the official Xinhua News Agency. Economists and rural affairs experts who have backed the change said the reform should ultimately lead to the creation of larger, more efficient farms, instead of the smaller family farms often no larger than several acres. As farmers who have struggled to make ends meet on smaller land-holdings sell off their plots, they are expected to join the more than 100 million other rural Chinese who have migrated to cities over the past decade for better-paying work. In a bid to prevent local officials from forcing farmers to transfer land âÄî common practice that has angered rural Chinese âÄî the policy states that all leases should be voluntary and that farmers must be adequately compensated. As brakes on these trends, local officials and the village are still expected to play a role in determining how land is used, despite the change. Worried about feeding a population of 1.3 billion people and growing, the government said that land used for farming should not be transferred to other purposes. In recent years, farmers in much of the country have engaged in informal swaps of land held in common by the village. Families are allocated larger or smaller plots depending on family size, while those who leave for the cities often let others farm their land in exchange for a fee. The party has debated privatizing rural farmland over the past decade. More liberal supporters have called for full property rights for farm households, while opponents have worried that the privatization could produce legions of landless farmers without jobs. The new policy was approved Oct. 12 at a meeting of the partyâÄôs policy-setting Central Committee. Though a communique announced that the reform had been approved, no details were released at the time, fueling speculation that opponents had watered down the policy. President Hu Jintao has made championing the rights of ChinaâÄôs farmers and poorer workers a hallmark of his six years in power and has called for narrowing the socially volatile gap between the poor and the urban elite who have most benefited from reforms. As part of the central committee meeting, Hu and other party leaders pledged to double rural incomes âÄî currently around $590 per person a year âÄî over 12 years.