Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province launched an ambitious reform of its hukou household registration system in November.
If successful, the reform will free tens of thousands of rural residents to enjoy the same social benefits as their urban counterparts.
All Chinese on the mainland are classified as either rural or urban via their hukou household registration, a document that records a person's home, name, parents, spouse and date of birth.
Beijing officially promulgated this family registration system in 1958 as a means to control movement between urban and rural areas. Hukou plays a decisive factor even today in marriage, education, employment, grain rations, employer-subsidized housing, healthcare, unemployment benefits, pensions and other urban perks.
Chengdu plans to integrate urban and rural hukou by 2012, allowing rural residents to register according to their actual place of residence and update that registration if they move. The same will apply for urban residents.
Apart from providing better social benefits, the reform has another bigger purpose.
"We can see that behind this hukou reform is actually land reform," said Qiao Xinsheng, director of the Social Development Research Center at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Hubei Province. "If a city wants to keep up its economic development then it needs extra land to build and group factories together in an industrial park for more efficient productivity and management," Qiao said. "But there isn't enough land in urban districts so the rural residents' land is a good option.
"But obviously in China acquiring land from farmers is a very difficult, long-term task."
By offering the improved social welfare benefits that come with urban hukou residency, Chengdu hopes rural residents will be willing to hand over their land.
The central government picked Chengdu as a pilot city alongside China's biggest city - Chongqing - for two slightly different types of hukou/land reform.
Rural land ownership and usage in China is extremely complicated. Basically, China has two kinds of land zoning: arable and land available for construction.
The first kind cannot be legally built on at all, and the latter is the location where rural residents usually build their houses.
Rural residents cannot rent or sell either type of land. That's because despite appearances, they don't actually own their own land.
One of the hangovers of socialist land reform implemented after 1949 is that nobody really owns their land in the People's Republic of China.
A citizen merely owns the usage rights to his or her land, not the land itself. A foggy combination of relevant legal authorities - in China's case, the village and/or national governments - owns the land.
This ownership-usage duality continues to lend itself to considerable confusion: If all the villagers' land is centrally owned by the village authorities, then the agents of Beijing representing the new central government policy face a considerable uphill task getting land off villagers without resorting to coercion.
Chongqing hukou reform started in August and requires rural residents to hand over their construction/residential land for a free urban apartment and hukou.