However, a four-day meeting of the Communist Party’s central committee failed to announce a widely-anticipated move to give farmers the right to sell or rent their land.
Under the current system, each of China’s 900 million or so officially-registered rural residents are allocated their own patch of land by their village committee. That land cannot be transferred even if they move away, resulting in a patchwork of tiny plots across the country.
Last week, President Hu Jintao hinted that private ownership may be introduced, a move that could lead to the re-emergence of the hated landlord class that was wiped out in China’s communist revolution. "We will allow farmers to transfer the right of land contract in accordance with their will," said President Hu.
Supporters suggested that the move would spur investment in the countryside and create large-scale and efficient farming. In practice, many of the 150 million farmers who have left for China’s cities are already informally renting their land, especially on China’s East coast.
However, the central committee only said that it would "liberate and develop rural society’s productivity and hasten the construction of a new Socialist countryside." It said it wanted to double rural incomes, which stood at £355 a year in 2007, by 2020.
Sally Sargeson, a fellow at the Contemporary China Centre and Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University, said she felt the government would shy away from "hasty reforms". She said: "In the current economic climate it seems unlikely that the leadership would risk introducing ‘radical’ land reforms that would eliminate the social safety net that land has provided."