A pointer to the shape of future changes came recently in the form of explicit remarks about "political reforms" by Zhang Chunxian, the CCP head of Hunan province.Asia Times then rattles off various ways that the comments could be interpreted---land reform, "public opinion" surveys as effective votes on cadre promotion, as well as more ambitious stuff---and notes that Zhang appears to be in the process of being groomed for higher posts, so it is unlikely that he "made a slip of the tongue."
At a televised conference of Hunan officials on August 31 held to mobilize a province-wide campaign for further "emancipation of minds", Zhang said reforms in the past 30 years had focused on how "to return li [economic interests] to the people". The focus now would be on how "to return quan to the people" , with efforts devoted to "developing socialist democratic politics". The Chinese word quan has a double meaning and could refer to rights or (political) power or both.
I for one am extremely nervous about the prospect of premature land reform. The free market crowd loves the idea for all the usual reasons: farmers being given incentives to invest in the land, land being used as collateral for loans, bigger and more efficient farms, etc. But without courts that will actually protect farmers' rights, it seems likely that land reform would just yield more, not less heartless land grabs by officials and developers with no more push back than today.
Land grabs are serious. Any more of them and a critical social safety net, the ONLY social safety net in many areas, will be lost to hundreds of millions of rural people who would no longer have any "right" to a patch of (leased) property for their families. It is not hard imagining landlords returning. Worse yet, there is the possibility of a phenomenon that China has largely avoided but that other countries at its income level in Latin America and Southeast Asia endure: shantytowns.
Therefore, on top of all the reasons for political reform on its own merits, I hope elections and press freedoms and freedom of association (such as for farmers associations) will move ahead so that rural people can gain a stronger check on local authorities---before literally the ground beneath them is torn up.
Let's hope this is what Mr. Zhang has in mind. More importantly, let's hope this is what his superiors have in mind.