Mon, Feb 19, 2007 - Page 3 News List

China's leaders press flesh, push agenda on holiday

AGENCIES , BEIJING

China's leaders celebrated the traditional Lunar New Year festival by visiting poor residents in the country's backwoods and claiming their policies have begun to improve people's lives, state media reported yesterday.

Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has cast himself as a grassroots leader committed to spreading the wealth brought by market reform and the ruling Communist Party leaders' Lunar New Year visits to coal mines, blighted industrial towns, and AIDS-decimated villages have become annual spectacles advertising that policy.

This year Hu marked the holiday with a visit on Saturday to Daping Village in barren, northwestern Gansu province and state media used the occasion to suggest the president's policies are bearing fruit.

Hu last visited the potato-growing village in 1999, three years before he became Communist Party chief, the People's Daily reported yesterday.

"Eight years ago, people's lives in this village were extremely difficult, owing to poor natural conditions," the paper said.

This time villagers who had met Hu eight years ago presented a basket of high-grade potatoes and told him their lives were improving thanks to government policies to bring new crop varieties and markets.

"Incomes are growing and villagers lives are getting better all the time," the paper said. "After hearing this, Hu Jintao gave a smile of satisfaction."

"New houses are erected and plenty of food is stored, which shows the lives of the Daping people have really improved," Xinhua quoted him telling Daping villagers outside the village hall.

Gansu farmers earned 2,100 yuan (US$296) a year on average, Xinhua said, more than 30 percent below the national average for rural workers and a long way below urban incomes.

Hu scoffed fried dough and steamed potatoes with Daping villagers, joining their celebrations for the Year of the Pig, scenes on Chinese television news showed. He was accompanied by a bevy of local officials and minders.

Since taking over from former president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) -- a market reformer more comfortable mixing with multinational executives than farmers -- Hu has announced efforts to rein in yawning income gaps and spread more wealth to the countryside.

A meeting of China's national legislature in March and a Communist Party congress later in the year are set to reinforce those policies, but so far the government's measures have done little to narrow the income gap.

Chinese citizens in cities and the countryside saw their incomes grow more quickly last year than the previous year, though faster growth in urban areas meant the urban-rural divide continued to widen, according to official figures.

Urban residents' per capita disposable income reached 11,759 yuan (US$1,500) last year, up 12.1 percent in nominal terms from 2005. Net incomes in rural areas reached 3,587 yuan, a nominal increase of 10.2 percent.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) reinforced the government's populist theme by revisiting Fushun, a grim coal-mining city in northeast Liaoning Province that has seen mass unemployment and worker unrest in past years.

Wen visited there in 2003, walking through slums in which residents struggled in cold, rickety houses, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Back in Fushun on Friday, Wen inspected new houses built for poor residents and urged officials to abide by the government's "people-centred" policies.

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