Zhang Xiaosui is the very model of a modern Chinese peasant.
Farming a field 10 times larger than any of his neighbors' in
this scruffy village in central China, he is on the front lines of a
new government drive to transform Chinese agriculture, and with it
the lives of 750 million country dwellers.
If the land reform announced last week works as officials hope it
will, many peasants will emulate Mr. Zhang's effort to turn family
plots into a modern farm, and help bang one of the last nails into
the coffin of Mao Zedong's collectivist dream.
"I wanted to farm more land before, but I didn't have the
opportunity," Zhang says, sitting in his comfortably appointed front
room. "Now I can, because the government is starting to support my
In what the official news agency Xinhua called a "landmark policy
document," the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee agreed
last weekend to allow small farmers to sell their right to till the
land. The plan is designed to consolidate landholdings, encourage
uneconomic farmers to seek other employment, and boost rural
The decision did not privatize agricultural land, which remains
collective property. But "it marks a huge improvement in tenure
security for farmers and contains many, many good points," says Li
Ping, a lawyer with the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute,
which advocates wider land rights for peasants. "This new policy is
really, really good."
President Hu Jintao has made improvements in rural living
standards a key goal of his administration. The new reform comes a
symbolic 30 years after the radical changes that Deng Xiaoping
introduced, breaking up Soviet-style collective farms so that
peasants could do as they liked with the plots they were allocated.
That is widely credited with kick-starting the economic reforms
that have driven China's extraordinary economic growth over the past
three decades. Peasant farmers, however, have not enjoyed the fruits
of that growth anything like as much as their cousins in the cities:
The urban-rural income gap is now more than 3 to 1.
Under the current system, village committees divide village land
equally between residents who hold 30-year leases free of charge,
and who can grow what they like and sell their harvests wherever
This boosted productivity and incomes when it was first
introduced, but 30 years later the system is beset by inefficiencies
and waste. At the same time, 120 million peasants who have headed to
the cities in search of work as migrant laborers no longer use their
land to its full potential.
In recent years, many of those migrants have begun informally
leasing their land-use rights to relatives and neighbors, a trend
that the authorities tolerated. "We sincerely respect the creativity
of peasants" says Zheng Jiandong, head of the economics department
of the local Agricultural Administration that has been supervising
land reform experiments in this district in Henan Province for the
past 18 months.
"But disagreements can easily arise" from informal deals, he
adds, "and that has a bad impact on social stability, so the
government has stepped in."
Building on experiments around the country, like the one Mr.
Zheng is supervising, the new decision sets a policy framework to
"establish and improve a market for the transfer of land-use rights
... and allow farmers to transfer their rights by subcontracting,
leasing, swapping, or using them to form a joint-stock company."
"This decision indicates that the government really wants to
encourage the commercialization of scale agriculture," says Sally
Sargeson, an expert in Chinese rural affairs at Australian National
University in Canberra. …