ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To China now, where party leaders are worried about rural discontent which has a history of causing problems. Land issues and peasant rebellions have brought down imperial dynasties, and land reform was at the heart of the Communist Revolution in 1949. Today in China there is widespread poverty in the countryside and thousands of protests every year. So, Chinese leaders have quietly announced new policies that will transform life for the country's 700 million farmers. These changes are not receiving a universal welcome, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beiping village in Hunan province.
(Soundbite of Chinese man talking)
LOUISA LIM: It's planting season here, and Mr. Zhang is planting youmaicai, a green vegetable on his plot. It's a strip of land shaped like a noodle. It's about two paces wide, almost 30 paces long. In this village, the land has been divided up into such tiny plots that, in fact, farming here is extremely inefficient. And that's why the Chinese government is trying to change the way that its 700 million farmers go about their business.
Mr. ZHANG SHILIN (Chinese Farmer): (Chinese spoken)
LIM: If we each tend our own plots by ourselves, we'll never get rich, Zhang Shilin says. We need to lease our land out to professionals to increase our incomes. A frail 64-year-old, he's hauling up buckets of water to irrigate the tiny plot. With the young gone to the cities to make money, farming here is done by the elderly. That won't be the case for much longer. Beiping village is setting up a cooperative. It will lease farmers' land, consolidate the patchwork of plots, then modernize and mechanize farming. In return, it promises each farmer 440 pounds of grain a year. They won't have to do anything for it, unless they want to work for their collective, earning about $8 a day. Chinese farmers don't actually own their land, but they do have land use rights. And these reforms make it easier for farmers to lease these rights or sell them to agribusiness.
Ms. HUANG QING: (Chinese spoken)
LIM: It wasn't difficult to decide to sign the form, says 24-year-old Huang Qing. She left the village six years ago, but she's back for a holiday. She likes the fact that she'll be able to return to the city without worrying about the land.
Ms. HUANG: (Chinese spoken)
LIM: It's tough for the old people left behind to do the farming, she goes on. This is a better way. However, there's resistance among the village's senior citizens. Land has traditionally served as social security for China's peasants, and some fear these reforms could potentially create millions of landless farmers.
Mr. LIU JIUDE (Chinese Farmer): (Chinese spoken)
LIM: There's no money without land, says 76-year-old Liu Jiude. The changes are bad for us older people. He's perched on a low stool, sifting out hulks of soya beans. The older villagers are grappling with the ideological implications too. Some fear a return to the days of exploitative landlords whose evils were the subject of Communist propaganda. Nowadays, it seems big landlords are fine, so long as they raise incomes. Village Communist Party Secretary Liu Fuyuan.
Mr. LIU FUYUAN (Communist Party Secretary, Beiping Village): (Through Translator) Our leaders are rolling out policies to help farmers get rich. They want to close the gap between the city and the countryside. They want to urbanize the countryside. The small fields will become big fields, and we'll have rows and rows of houses like in the city.
LIM: As he juggles phone calls, Liu Fuyuan looks under stress. He's the Communist Party secretary, head of the collective, and village chief. That's a big concentration of power in one person. He's also charged with pushing through these reforms in Beiping where each person farms on average less than a fifth of an acre. He says 80 percent of the village's 2,018 residents have signed over their land. Those who don't want to can opt out.
Mr. LIU FUYUAN: (Through Translator) Of course, there's a lot of pressure. We're out in front. We're an experimental place, so we're allowed to succeed or fail by ourselves.
(Soundbite of barking dogs)
LIM: So China's Communist Party is jettisoning ideology for the sake of economic necessity. Rural dwellers earn just a third of the urbanites. And given the rising discontent, the focus is on increasing countryside incomes. But China's leaders have steered clear of more radical reform. Farmers still can't use their land to get loans and don't have ownership rights over their land. Nonetheless, these reforms are politically sensitive, and that becomes abundantly clear at Beiping village.
Unidentified Communist Party Official: (Chinese spoken)
LIM: As I talk to villagers, a local official, who refuses to identify himself, arrives. He tells farmers not to talk to me. We can't tell you any details, he says. It's too early. We're still working it out. Details aside, these reforms are far-reaching. China's Communist leaders rose to power by liberating peasant farmers from the reviled landlord class. Now they're promising to liberate peasants from the land itself. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beiping Village, Hunan Province, China.