It would be all too easy to have missed the communiqué released Oct. 19 by the Central Committee of China's ruling Communist Party. After all, the world's newspapers are dominated by the homestretch of the U.S. presidential election, the ongoing global financial crisis and other momentous events. But the blandly titled "Decision on Major Issues Concerning the Advancement of Rural Reform and Development" will be studied by historians when the markets' latest gyrations and Sarah Palin's appearance on Saturday Night Live are long forgotten. Behind the document's clunky sentences constructed from boilerplate Party phraseology are changes that will vault China into the next, irrevocable stage of its evolution into a fully capitalist economy but could also spark one of the biggest mass migrations in history and push the country's already fragile social balance closer to collapse.
Three decades ago, the Party approved another set of rural reforms, liberating a billion peasants from the collectivized farming imposed by Mao Zedong and allowing them to farm their plots for a profit. That decision is widely regarded as marking the start of China's stunning economic boom. But ownership of the land remained with the state; farmers had to renew leases every 30 years and their sale was forbidden.
Now faced by a yawning chasm between urban and rural incomes and rising unrest in the countryside, the Chinese leadership has taken a cautious middle road, stopping short of allowing outright sale and purchase of rural land and instead approving the trading of the peasants' leases and extending terms beyond 30 years. That amounts to the right to sell in all but name and potentially frees up hundreds of millions of rural Chinese until now second-class citizens in their own country to head for the big city. China's urban dwellers may well wonder how they will cope as hordes of their country cousins appear on their doorsteps, seeking their piece of the Chinese dream.