The annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp legislature opens on Sunday with the government expected to push through steps it hopes will narrow the wealth and development gap between its cities and the vast countryside.
The 10-day session could be an opportunity for President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to appoint a new vice premier to replace Huang Ju (黃菊), a close political ally of Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民). Sources say Huang is suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Huang, 67, is ranked sixth in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. He was being treated in the No. 301 military hospital in Beijing, said two Chinese sources with knowledge of Huang's situation. They said he was seriously ill and had undergone two operations this year.
Face-saving alternatives to naming a replacement to Huang include increasing the number of vice premiers or sharing out his portfolios to the other current vice premiers, the sources said.
But it is efforts to build a "new socialist countryside" that may generate the most debate at this National People's Congress (NPC) session and be the focus of a leadership increasingly worried about rural unrest on issues ranging from corruption to land seizures.
China is worried that stark gaps in income, healthcare and schooling between rich urban dwellers and the three-quarters of its 1.3 billion people who live in the countryside could lead to further protests that may challenge the Communists' monopoly on power.
The government is to unveil and formalize a raft of measures to better protect farmers from forced land seizures and boost spending on rural healthcare and schools.
Last year there was a gap of almost US$1,000 in average annual income between city dwellers and the 750 million people who live on the land, who earned an average of US$400.
According to an Internet survey by the People's Daily Web site, narrowing the wealth gap and cracking down on corruption were two of the most important topics people were paying attention to at this parliamentary session.
This year alone, central and provincial governments will give 103 billion yuan (US$12.8 billion) to local governments to make up a revenue shortfall after abolition of the agricultural tax last year.
China aims to raise spending on education from 2.7 percent to 4 percent of GDP as it focuses on improving rural schooling to stem a gap with rich coastal areas.
China has nine years of compulsory education, but fees levied by cash-strapped local governments in poor areas put primary education beyond the means of many rural families.
Meanwhile, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the NPC's main advisory body -- a gaggle of businesspeople, farmers, movie stars and Tibetan monks meant to keep Chinese leaders in touch with what's going on in remote regions -- begins its annual two-week session today. And it could find itself with a new role: messenger.
Officials wanting to reassure a frustrated public that they are taking action in response to growing anger over poverty and corruption might use the CPPCC to convey that message to the countryside.
"I will not be surprised if I see a more aggressive use of the CPPCC as an instrument to pacify the discontented rural population," said Steve Tsang (曾銳生), director of the Asian Studies Center at St. Antony's College at Oxford University in England.
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