The Chinese government, faced with rising inequality and unrest in the countryside, formally announced major initiatives this week to expand health, education and welfare benefits for farmers but left unresolved the fundamental issue of whether they should be allowed to buy or sell their land.
In recent days President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) have given speeches about the "new socialist countryside" initiative, and the National People's Congress, the Communist Party-controlled legislature, is expected to make the rural program the centerpiece of a new five-year plan during its annual meeting next month.
The program, which emerged in broad form in October, includes free education for many rural students, increased subsidy payments for farmers, new government financing for medical care and further government investment in rural public works. A specific price tag has not been announced, but rural spending is expected to rise sharply.
"The central government has changed direction to focus on uneven development," said Wen Tiejun (溫鐵軍), dean of the School of Agriculture and Rural Development at People's University in Beijing.
"The economic gap is creating social conflict, and social conflict has become a more and more serious problem," he said.
At a news conference on Wed-nesday morning, Chen Xiwen (陳錫文), the top government adviser on rural issues, outlined parts of the program and said the government must help defray the huge debts of rural governments, as China enters "a new historical period" in which the central government can better balance economic development.
Chen said agriculture and rural savings had helped finance the boom in China's cities and coastal regions, so money now must be redirected into the countryside.
But he said the program did not include any immediate changes in rural land policy, an issue that many experts consider to be at the heart of the urban-rural inequality problem. Illegal land seizures have caused rising rural protests and violence in recent years, as local officials have confiscated farmland and resold it to developers for fat profits. Farmers are often cheated and left with little compensation.
The resulting social instability has alarmed the government, and even Wen has warned that China must avoid a "historic error" over illegal land grabs.
Under the Chinese Constitution, farmland is collectively held by villages, so individual farmers, who hold leases, have limited control. Local governments have easily exploited the law to claim land for development projects.
Some experts say that government should be eliminated as a middleman in land sales and that farmers should be granted rights to negotiate and profit from selling land. In cities residents cannot own land, but they can own apartments, houses or commercial real estate that sit atop it. As a result, a real estate boom has helped city residents but largely bypassed the countryside.
Pointing into the indefinite future, Chen acknowledged that China would eventually need "to propose steadily reforming the land acquisition system itself." But he said any changes must happen slowly to protect the nation's farming output.