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Chinese Official Says Unrest Declined in 2006, Rural Spending to Rise in 2007


China's top advisor on rural issues says protests and riots fell last year, but he warns discontent in the countryside is still a serious problem. As Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing, much of the problem is caused by local officials taking farmland for development.

Chen Xiwen, director of China's office of the central leading group on rural work, said Tuesday that government spending had helped reduce demonstrations and uprisings against local governments.

Chen says in 2006 incidents of unrest went down sharply, but he provided no figures on the number. The government said there were 87,000 such incidents in 2005, up six percent from the year before.

He says rural poverty is declining and the situation for farmers has improved since 2005.

However, he told journalists, clashes between farmers and local governments remain a serious problem.

"Now in fact it is still the case that issues that arose several years ago have not been properly resolved or not resolved to farmers' satisfaction. And, so farmers continue to express their complaints."

Chen says the main source of conflict is the loss of land, followed by complaints about the use of village funds and pollution.

The government owns all the land in China but issues long-term leases to farmers.

However, local officials often collaborate with developers to take land from farmers at cheap prices to build profitable industrial and residential construction projects.

Development experts say allowing farmers to own their land would help prevent such corrupt practices and unrest, by giving farmers the right to negotiate and sell their land at market prices.

Chen acknowledges land grabs happen frequently but says privatization of land is not an option because China's constitution determines land ownership, not any government department.

China's Communist Party-led government has said rural unrest is a threat to the party's legitimacy. It has initiated a campaign to eliminate unfair rural taxes and bring new funds to the countryside.

Beijing also increased investment in rural areas last year by more than $5 billion. Chen says the government will spend even more in 2007 but he gave no details on how much.

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