Sat, Jan 21, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Farm issues threatening China: Wen

INSTABILITY The premier said that the country's food supply and security are being compromised by persistent problems in the agricultural sector


Land conflicts, unstable prices and backward conditions in China's farm sector are threatening the country's stability and its food supply, Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said in unusually blunt remarks published yesterday.

Sustainable development and national stability depend on resolving such problems, Wen said in the text of a speech carried in major state-run newspapers.

His comments underscore rising concern over lagging economic growth in the countryside, home to at least two of every three Chinese. Stagnating rural incomes have created an underclass of impoverished farmers lacking affordable access to basic public services such as health care and education.

One of the greatest threats to stability stems from seizures of farmland for property development and other construction projects, Wen said.

"In some areas, illegal seizures of farmland without reasonable compensation and resettlement have provoked uprisings; this is still a key source of instability in rural areas and even the whole society," Wen said.

Such seizures are draining the supply of farmland in a country where even with bumper harvests grain output is failing to keep pace with rising demand.

Just as significantly, seizures have provoked thousands of protests among farmers outraged over the loss of what they viewed as their most fundamental asset -- the means to make a living.

Such protests have grown increasingly widespread and violent in recent years, despite the central government's demand for local officials to end abuses and resolve conflicts peacefully.

Even the abolition of centuries-old taxes, ostensibly a huge relief for struggling farmers, could fail if local authorities boost so-called "arbitrary fees," Wen warned.

Incomes in rural areas average about US$300 a year, compared with urban incomes averaging about US$1,000. Most rural residents also lack access to affordable schooling and health care.

Since taking power three years ago, China's leaders have stressed their commitment to bettering incomes and living conditions for the rural population who helped bring the Communists to power in 1949.

But it is unclear how much progress has been made, given rampant corruption and vested interests at the local level, where officials often can reap huge profits from lucrative property deals.

Wen warned that such issues also influence China's ability to feed its 1.3 billion people, despite bumper harvests that raised grain production to an estimated record 440 million tonnes last year.

"In 2006, grain production will encounter adverse circumstances such as unstable grain prices, arable land shrinkage and an unpredictable climate," Wen said.

Wen called for keeping grain prices steady, while curbing "excessive" increases in the prices of farming inputs.

He said the government will focus in coming years on improving living and working conditions in rural areas, boosting spending and doing more to protect migrant workers who face unsafe and unstable working conditions and are often denied fair wages.

Rural public schools, hospitals and cultural facilities also must be improved, Wen said.

"In the final analysis, we must protect the democratic rights and provide material benefits to rural citizens," he said. "Improving rural quality of life and ensuring social fairness and justice are extremely important and urgent tasks."

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