In 1978, Deng Xiaoping launched China's economic reforms by disbanding the agricultural commune system, unleashing a torrent of productivity on China's farms. Most historians agree that it was the success of the agricultural reforms that gave the nation's leaders confidence to begin the slow but momentous process of dismantling the central planning apparatus, from price controls to the hukou system of population management. It is all the more ironic then, nearly a quarter of a century on, that the world's second largest economy has to turn its attention once again to the rural millions that gave birth to the communist revolution in the 1930s, when China's current industrial might was a far-off dream. Freed from the heavy hand of collective agriculture, farmers were left to fend for themselves while China's coastal cities boomed. The government never replaced the social safety net provided by the former communes, and as free market competition began to reshape the map of Chinese agriculture, rural migrants became a frightening feature of urban life in China. Caijing magazine estimates that as many as 150 million farmers are unemployed. They are a destabilising force that no country could afford to ignore. President-to-be Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who will become premier after the National People's Congress meets in March, are moving quickly to meet this challenge. The scale of policy reforms is still under review, but the broad outline is so dramatic that it easily compares to the end of collective agriculture in 1978. New measures include universal medical coverage and plans to eliminate layers of administration in order to stop the corruption and the levying of the ruinous fees by local governments that have become a major source of tension in rural areas. These reforms represent a huge step towards defusing a social time bomb. But equally huge obstacles remain. If the government is to scrap the fees that currently pay the salaries of local officials, they will have to source the money from elsewhere. There will be mounting resistance from 60 million local officials who fear the loss of their jobs and perks. This could be the start of a transformation of governance as profound as the economic revolution of the last two decades. But the leaders will need strong resolve to overcome resistance.