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Officials Warn Against Rural Instability

China News Digest, 11 January 2002

[CND, 01/10/02] Mainland China will face potentially dangerous turmoil if no effort is made to raise the standard of living of rural population, who are being forced to pay much of their incomes in quasi-legal fees and taxes levied by insensitive or corrupt lower-level officials, a South China Morning Post article reported the Communist Party leadership as saying Tuesday.

Leaders also warned that China's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) may cause significant economic distress and instability, especially in rural areas.

On Tuesday the People's Daily, the Communist Party's newspaper of record, published a front-page article and a strongly worded editorial that collectively urged different levels of government to institute sweeping reforms at the rural level during 2002, noting that raising incomes and lowering taxes for impoverished farmers were the only means of quelling rural unrest.

Recently rural demonstrations against corrupt local officials and run-ins with rural cadres over oppressive arbitrary fees and taxes have become more and more common. These demonstrations often involve hundreds or thousands of rebellious peasants, and some have become violent.

The People's Daily editorial ordered grassroots officials to give more and take less from farmers.

Only when there is stability in the countryside will there be stability in the nation, the editorial said. Only if farmers develop can the country develop, and only if farmers get rich will the country prosper.

Concern for peasants and support for agriculture are not only real needs, but also strategic issues they are not only economic issues, but also political ones.

The editorial also argued that an increase in income earned by farmers could also stimulate domestic demand, which the Government is eager to raise to boost economic growth, the newspaper said, explaining that weak national domestic demand was in part caused by the slow growth of farmers' income.

The editorial followed on the heels of a national conference on agriculture in the mainland attended by senior leaders, including Vice-Premier WEN Jiabao, and ended Monday.

The meeting, sponsored by the Communist Party and the State Council, stressed the social dangers that result from the growing income disparity between rural and urban residents and warned local authorities to take emergency measures to assuage the farmers' grievances before the tense situation becomes a crisis.

Officials also examined ways to the government may assist farmers in facing the challenges they will face in the wake of China's entry into the WTO in December. As part of its WTO accession agreement China has agreed to lower its tariffs on agricultural imports and to limit subsidies for rural activities.

The editorial noted that in the long run, WTO membership would enrich China's agricultural sector by encouraging farming reforms and the export of agriculture products. In the short run it admitted that farmers would be among the most severely affected by China's WTO membership, citing the conclusions from the high-level meeting.

Researchers estimate that millions of rural residents in the mainland may lose their livelihoods when trade barriers are dismantled in line with WTO commitments.

Chinese leaders fear that rural turmoil may result in greater political instability in the run up to the Communist Party's 16th Party Congress this autumn. Some are predict a leadership reshuffle at the Congress, possibly including the retirement of President JIANG Zemin and Premier ZHU Rongji. (Laurel Mittenthal)