10/13/2008, 00.00
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Beijing announces landmark agricultural reform

Reform is touted but few details are released. According to some reports rural residents will get title to their land or at least very long leases, better social services and some baby steps towards democratic elections. But many problems remain to be solved.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has agreed on a package of rural reforms that could re-shape the country's economic policies over the coming years. The objective is to double rural incomes by 2020, boost social services in the countryside, modernise agriculture and integrate rural and urban economies.

At the conclusion of the four-day meeting, which ended on Sunday, state-owned Xinhua news agency announced the approval of the main guidelines for the reforms. Although the main points were not made public, it is expected that farmers will get title to their land or at least very long leases.

At present farmers do not own the land they till, which is government property, but hold it under 30-year leases. And their farms tend to be small, averaging about 1.66 acres (0.67 hectare) in size, according to government figures, making it hard to run them profitably. In fact to maximise production, many farmers have to swap chunks of land to be held in common by the village. Hence they are fewer incentives for them to make improvement.

The press release also said that party rule would be strengthened in the countryside by improving grass-roots elections, allowing candidates from outside the party to run. However, it provided very little insight on how to curb rampant corruption and violations of central government policies by local party secretaries and village officials who take advantage of public ownership of land to seize farms for industrial or real estate development without compensation.

This situation has meant low incomes for China 750 million farmers and effectively barred them from enjoying the fruits of the country’s recent economic boom, generating instead tens of thousands of street protests per year against abuse by the authorities or pollution.

Citing government figures Xinhua said that there were 15 million peasant farmers living in absolute poverty, living on less than a dollar a day. For this reason the party wants to double rural revenues, currently at 4,140 yuan (US$ 620) against 14,000 in the cities, and increase public spending for essential social services. Its targets include "allowing all rural residents to have the opportunity to receive a good education, providing basic security in the countryside, and improving basic medical services and rural social-service management.”

Yet “having farmers' income double in 12 years [. . .] does not sound very exciting,” said Huang Zuhui, director of the Centre for Agricultural and Rural Development of Zhejiang University.

For Dang Guoying, a rural expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a “5 per cent annual growth of farmers’ income” had already been set so “it is not a surprise that farmers' income can double by 2020.”

Reforms are also expected to legalise many of the informal leases contracted by some of the more than 150 million rural residents who have migrated to the cities.

Reforms could not come too soon. The countryside has been largely neglected and lacks adequate health care and educational services. Many rural residents have to travel to the cities for services at a high cost.

Anyone who has the misfortune of contracting a serious disease must often sell everything they own or take out loans to pay for treatment and drugs.

Other analysts point out that this shift has become imperative because Beijing is eager to create a large domestic market since it can no longer rely on exports with the crumbling of the global financial market.

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