His dilemma highlights a key issue for China's reformist leaders as they look for ways to encourage more people to move to cities to help turn a credit- and investment-driven economy into a consumer-powered one.

If rural Chinese are given formal rights to their land, they could cash in its value and feel more secure about moving to work in cities. If they are given residency status in cities, rather than having it tied to their home village, they would have access to social welfare, making it more likely they would spend more or move their family to live in the cities too.

Without reform of land and residency rights, a government urbanization drive may fall behind, endangering broader economic reform and even risking social unrest.

"I won't go back to work the land, but I cannot afford to buy a property here - prices are too high," said Tan, pointing to towering apartment blocks in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

Top leaders are meeting in secret in Beijing to plot an economic agenda for the next decade, and will be looking at pilot schemes in Chengdu and elsewhere that are testing land and residency reform for clues on what changes to make.

But the Chengdu pilot programme and others that allow farmers to lease or sell their land have shown the process is slow and tangled with problems, raising questions about how quickly they could be scaled up nationally.

Reforms in the 1980s assigned farmland to households but reserved formal ownership to the village collective. Land certificates are imprecise at best and many rural households lack documentation, although Beijing has tasked the provinces with registering title to land nationwide over the next five years.

The lack of clear land rights makes many farmers vulnerable to land grabs by local administrations for development, a major source of government revenue and equally a major source of discontent among farmers who say they are not compensated fairly.

"Pilots in Chongqing and Chengdu are slow," said Tao Ran, an economist at Renmin University in Beijing. "It's not an ideological problem, but a problem of interests," he said. "Local governments still want to monopolise land sales and repay their debt."

(Agencies)

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