As China sheds the last vestiges of its planned economy, private property has become a great source of wealth - and conflict. All land still belongs to the state. But the sale and transfer of rights to develop, and the compensation of those living or working on the land, have become highly controversial. Last month, at least three farmers set themselves alight, one of them in Tiananmen Square on National Day, to protest against forced eviction and inadequate compensation. The grievances are leading to riots and demonstrations, which have the potential to upset the country's recent economic progress, if not to embarrass the nation in the international sphere. It is not surprising then to see the signs of concerted government action to curb the most excessive behaviour on the part of property developers - and the official corruption that feeds off shady land deals. At the end of last month, official media reported on what could have been Beijing's first detentions of property developers on charges of using violence to evict tenants. Elsewhere, officials are being called to account for land transfers that took place outside of the bounds of legally mandated public auctions, with the government this week trumpeting the initiation of five major investigations into illegal land use. Putting an end to these deals will not be easy. The siphoning off of state-owned factory land by managers and the arbitrary annexation of rural farmland by local officials have been taking place for many years. Laws on the books about adequate compensation for tenants and farmers, as well as rules about public tender, are still widely ignored. The operative phrase when it comes to local governments' thinking on this matter is 'heaven is high and the emperor is far away'. In Shanghai, the lawyer representing tenants who claimed an illegal deal was behind tycoon Chau Ching-ngai's plans to redevelop their homes has been sentenced to three years in jail for revealing state secrets. The evidence of new resolve from the central leadership to enforce the rules on property development is an encouraging start, but is still just a start. It remains to be seen whether provincial, city and village officials fall in line. Yet for all its importance to a successful transition to a market economy, the issue of land use is simply too important to ignore - and the government knows this. Assuring that transfer of parcels is done at market prices will in some way help deflate the property bubble that is raising fears of uncontrolled and unwise bank lending - burdening an already insolvent system. And drawing the line at illegal and violent evictions is the first step towards making sure that tenants and farmers are compensated for leaving their homes. This is not just fair, it will defuse one of the main sources of social discontent.