China Addresses Plight of Farmers

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 2006

BEIJING, Feb. 22 -- A senior Chinese official said Wednesday that the government must take immediate steps to raise the living standards of disgruntled farmers and soften the blow when urban development swallows up their fields and villages.

The declaration, from Chen Xiwen, a high-level Communist Party functionary for rural finances, was the latest drumroll in a large-scale campaign by the Chinese government to show it is determined to help China's 750 million increasingly restive farmers.

Against a background of increasing riots in the countryside, President Hu Jintao declared last week that swiftly improving the living standards of farmers "is a major historic mission undertaken by our party." China's tightly controlled press and television outlets have inundated audiences in recent days with reports of new roads, dredged irrigation canals and visits by officials to chat with farmers about their needs.

The Politburo, made up of China's 25 most powerful people, issued a document Tuesday formally laying out its resolve to emphasize rural development during the country's 11th five-year economic plan, which began in January. Chen, from the Central Financial Work Leading Group, briefed reporters on the project, described by the Communist Party as an effort at "building a new socialist countryside."

The government previously had planned to wait for general economic growth to spread naturally from the swiftly growing cities to the lagging countryside, he explained. But a yawning income gap and the discontent displayed by rioting farmers mean the party must take specific new steps to accelerate improvements, he said.

"Of course, it will take a long time in history for the new socialist countryside to materialize in China," Chen said in prepared remarks. "Formerly meant to be a vision to pursue and a direction for development, the notion is now deemed as both a long-term goal and an urgent, immediate task."

The net per-capita income of farmers in 2005 was $402.80, while the per-capita income of city dwellers was $1,292, according to government statistics. "What's more," Chen said, "the gap is widening."

In that climate, the number of clashes between angry farmers and security forces has risen dramatically over the past two years, generating fears in the government that the unrest could spread and undermine economic growth or even the party's grip on power. The Public Security Ministry estimated that about 87,000 riots and protests occurred during 2005, most of them in the countryside.

The unrest has arisen most frequently in response to land seizures by local governments to make way for industrial development on the edges of growing cities. To ease such transitions, the government plans to organize retraining and job programs for farmers left without their fields and to usher them into city-based health insurance systems, Chen said.

In addition, Chen said the government was studying how farmers could benefit in some way from the resale of their land. In a related move, the Land and Resources Department of Guangdong province, which has experienced a number of violent village protests, suggested recently that compensation for seized land should be paid directly to affected farmers, without going through local governments.

Villagers frequently have complained that promised compensation never reaches them because corrupt local officials pocket a large percentage of the money as it flows from the upper levels of government through provincial, county and township offices down to village committees.

Chen said the party had not yet envisioned a fundamental change in the constitutional provision that makes all land in China government property, with farmers accorded only a contract to use it for a given period. It is that provision that gives local governments power to seize farmland and transfer it to developers, often at a price several times the value of farmers' compensation.

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