Rural China faces unrest


CHINA: The Chinese authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about growing unrest caused by a widening wealth gap between rural and urban areas.

Senior government officials met on Monday to discuss how to deal with the emerging social instability in rural areas, where income levels lag way behind those in major urban centres.

It was reported yesterday that officials at the combined State Council and Communist Party meeting warned the wealth gap could have a "big effect on social stability and economic growth".

The countryside is being described increasingly as a time bomb, with farm incomes falling, local government on the verge of collapse, and hostility between rural cadres and farmers simmering. Farmers, burdened with heavy taxes and ad-hoc fees levied by local officials, are resorting to sporadic and sometimes violent protests.

China's ruling Communist Party called yesterday through its mouthpiece, the People's Daily, for sweeping rural reform in 2002. "Only when there is stability in the countryside will there be stability in the nation," a front-page editorial proclaimed. "Only if farmers develop can the country develop."

Reports emerged yesterday of a protest staged by farmers in Henan Province after the authorities tried to collect taxes. About 600 farmers surrounded and overturned 10 cars belonging to the local party committee. A county official said farmers had been sued for six years' back taxes amounting to €1,500. Some had not paid their agricultural and "special-produce" taxes since 1995.

Farmers are also protesting against corruption among local officials. The national average peasant income in 2000 was only €350.