BEIJING BEGINS NATIONAL PEOPLE’S CONGRESS WITH PROMISES OF ASSISTANCE FOR RURAL POOR
In accordance with President Hu Jintao’s commitment toward creating a “harmonious society” (hexie shehui) within China, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled a new series of measures that would provide medical, agricultural and social assistance to the country’s impoverished rural residents. At the opening ceremony of the Fifth Session of the 10th National People’s Congress on March 5, Wen announced Beijing’s decision to spend 391.7 billion yuan ($50.6 billion) on agricultural development and subsidies for peasants this year in its effort to develop a modern agricultural sector and a “new socialist countryside.” The agricultural sector remains the base of the economy, Wen declared in his speech, and Beijing would “effectively shift the focus of state infrastructure development and development of social programs to the countryside” (Xinhua, March 5). Corresponding with this major shift in development priorities was the release of a recent study in Xuexi Shibao (The Study Times), the newspaper of the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which predicted that unless additional resources are devoted to modernizing China’s agricultural sector, it could very well face a grain shortage of some 4.8 million tons in 2010.
In addition to agricultural assistance, some six billion yuan ($775 million) is likely to be allocated as social security allowances for the 23.7 million Chinese living in “abject poverty.” According to the State Council Leading Group of the Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, by the end of 2006, these residents, primarily residing in rural regions, were living on an annual per capita income of less than 684 yuan ($88). Wen also announced that Beijing would begin the trial of a new rural healthcare system that will cover more than 80 percent of the rural counties and cities in China. This new measure will be a significant development in China’s ongoing reforms of its underfunded rural healthcare insurance system, the Cooperative Medical Scheme, and help to reduce the healthcare disparities between the urban and rural areas. According to the Ministry of Health’s 2005 statistics, the infant mortality rate in rural regions of China was 2.4 times higher than that of the urban regions.
These initiatives are largely the result of Beijing’s increasing concerns regarding the growing number of “mass incidents”—public protests, disturbances and riots—in recent years that have stemmed from complaints of corruption, illegal-land seizures and most significantly, the growing income disparities between the urban and rural populations. Fearing that such incidents—some 85,000 in 2005—could destabilize China and threaten the legitimacy of the CCP, both Wen and Hu have renewed efforts in recent years to provide additional assistance toward the rural populace, which had largely been marginalized under the previous administration of President Jiang Zemin.