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Who should own the good earth of China

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When Hu Jintao took China's helm in 2003, his goal became social harmony. No wonder. Riots and protests, mostly by peasants, are up tenfold in 10 years. The Communist Party is now even citing Confucius to try to instill moral standards.

Indeed, quotes from the ancient Chinese sage, who was once reviled by the communists, are useful in reminding leaders of the virtue in taking care of society's downtrodden - especially Chinese farmers who can till farmland only under a government lease but whose lands increasingly are taken willy-nilly by corrupt officials for development.

Over the past week, during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, party leaders once again flinched at really helping those farmers. They could have had this rubber-stamp legislature pass the one reform that would most lift up the seven in 10 Chinese who live in the countryside - almost all of whom eke out a living far below the richer lifestyles in China's cities.

The reform has been in the works for years. It's a draft law that would grant land ownership to farmers, allowing them to buy and sell land in a free market. Such a law would put legal meat on a 2004 amendment to China's Constitution that only vaguely calls for protecting property rights.

Passing a law that would turn 700-900 million Chinese peasants into land capitalists isn't easy for the party's remaining die-hard Marxists, who still dream of a socialist paradise. They have raised an ideological ruckus over the draft law. The party, too, faced with fading popularity, believes its power resides in hanging onto government ownership of land.

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