China is playing down plans to liberalize farmers' right to trade their land rights.  Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

The measure was hailed in official media as a landmark policy that would modernize China's family-run farming and bring prosperity to the countryside.   For the first time farmers would be allowed to trade, lease, and even sell the right to use farm plots allotted by local governments.

Farms could then be better managed for production.

But, a high-ranking government advisor says the rules are not new and the aim is merely to protect farmland from being illegally exploited and to give farmers other opportunities for work.

The director of China's leading rural work group, Chen Xiwen, told journalists at a government briefing the trade in land rights has been legal for more than 20 years and the new policy simply spells out government concerns.

He says any transfer of land rights must be done legally, voluntarily, and not forced, to prevent de-facto land seizures.

Farmers have been forced off their land by corrupt officials looking to cash in by building factories or other commercial projects.  The practice has led to widespread unrest in China's countryside and further depleted the country's short supply of farmland.
China has been trying to narrow the growing income gap between urban and rural areas by encouraging investment and development in the countryside.

The government has also relaxed rules on migrant workers coming from villages to earn better money in cities.

But Chen refused suggestions farmers should be allowed to use their land rights or houses as collateral for getting bank loans.  He said farmers could not risk losing their basis of support because China's rural social security system is still poor.

He says the biggest problem facing many developing countries is that farmers without land or houses have now moved to cities regardless of jobs.  He says that is why they have slums and high-crime rates that are destabilizing to society.  He says China will never follow this path.

All of Chinese land is technically owned by the government and farmers are given long-term leases to use the property.  The new policy reaffirms this position and stresses that traded farmland cannot be used for anything other than agriculture.