Beijing’s pledge to carry out land law reforms and expand peasant rights, while well-intentioned, may actually exacerbate and bring to a fever pitch long-running land disputes across China.

As China rapidly modernized in the last few decades, it has also seen the expropriation and sale of communal land by local governments, which has provoked discontent among peasants who have traditionally relied on the land for their livelihood. The resulting rural rights movement threatens to undermine the Communist Party’s legitimacy, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

“Right now, the majority of places have land disputes, and more than half of them are the subject of rights campaigns,” said a rights attorney in Guangdong province in the south.

For example, in 2011, Wukan, a fishing village in Guangdong, the village committee was physically ejected by angry residents after it entered into contracts with developers. Since then, a succession of village committees have attempted to unwind the transactions and retrieve the land, to no avail.

It was no surprise, therefore, that land reform was an important part of the reform directive unveiled at the Third Communist Party Plenum in November. Chinese leaders vowed that farmers would be granted more control over their land, allowing them to mortgage or transfer rights. Following up in December, the government announced it was considering laws to help peasants challenge local authorities over land disputes.

But enacting reforms may prove very difficult for the government, as obstacles are often complex and differ from one village to the next. Even ascertaining property ownership will be difficult in rural China, where record-keeping is often sketchy.

In addition, expanding peasant rights, while necessary, could hinder local governments' use of communal land for infrastructure, industrial projects and housing for economic expansion, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Nonetheless, the Third Plenum made a clear pledge to “endow peasants with more property rights.” The more detailed resolution stated that the party “will narrow the scope of land expropriation, regularize the procedures for land appropriation, and improve the rational, regular and multiple security mechanisms or farmers whose land is requisitioned.”