China's Premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) pledged yesterday to fight rural poverty, support the urban unemployed and stamp out official corruption and waste as he began his final year in government office.
Zhu, in a speech to China's National People's Congress (NPC), highlighted the biggest threats to the Communist Party's grip on power as China braces for its first full year in the WTO in the run-up to a sensitive leadership change.
The straight-talking premier lambasted corrupt and wasteful bureaucrats who wined and dined while farmers toiled under crippling local government levies and retrenched workers struggled to survive without social security benefits.
In his work report to the annual two-week session of the NPC, Zhu also stressed the need for stable relations with Taiwan before the leadership change by pledging to expand political and economic exchanges.
And he promoted a controversial plan put forward by President Jiang Zemin (江澤民) to allow private entrepreneurs into the Communist Party in a bid to make it more relevant to modern China.
Zhu, Jiang and NPC chief Li Peng (李鵬) are expected to step down from their Communist Party posts at a five-yearly congress later this year and will leave their government jobs at the NPC in 2003.
"The year 2002 is a very important year in the development of our party and country," Zhu told the meeting of some 3,000 legislators from across China in the Great Hall of the People.
"China's accession to WTO benefits its reform and opening up and its economic development as a whole, but in the short term, less competitive industries and enterprises face significant challenges," Zhu said.
Analysts say the government needs to deliver growth of around 7 percent a year to create enough jobs to deter social upheaval as an onslaught of foreign competition following China's WTO entry threatens to put tens of millions out of work.
Zhu said the key to growth in 2002 was boosting domestic demand by raising the incomes of rural and urban poor.
"The most pressing task is to ensure that subsistence allow-ances for laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises and basic pensions for retirees are paid on time and in full," he said.
Redundant workers and pensioners have held increasingly frequent and angry protests over inadequate welfare support while farmers have attacked local officials for imposing random levies.
In the countryside, a pilot project to replace the levies with a flat tax would be expanded to key provinces, Zhu said.
His speech struck a chord with delegates worried about how China's industry and agriculture will cope with WTO membership.
Analysts said Zhu's speech addressed concerns that the party had forsaken farmers and workers in favor of the business elite.
"Particularly the rural incomes, I think, is going to be the big thing, because of all the criticism that the party is deviating," said one Western diplomat who listened to the speech.
"You have concerns about party stability, you have concerns about social stability and therefore you have to look at ways of reducing the impact of WTO accession on ... the economy."
Zhu also called for direct trade, transport and postal links with Taiwan, reflecting Beijing's softer line on the island this year.
"We are working to further expand the cross-Strait economic and cultural exchanges and develop cross-strait relations so as to establish the `three direct links' as soon as possible," he said.