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China's Annual Legislative Meetings Expected to Pass Laws on Property, Foreign Business Taxes

China's legislature, the National People's Congress, will tackle the causes of rural unrest when it begins its annual session next week. This year legislators also are expected to pass long-debated legislation that would for the first time since the Communist Party came to power, grant private property the same legal protection as state-owned property. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

As China's economy has rocketed forward, with growth around 10 percent a year, the countryside has been left behind. Rural residents earn on average about one-third what urban residents earn, and the income gap is growing.

Official land seizures, inadequate access to health care and education, and illegal local taxes have led to widespread protests and riots. China's worsening environment has aggravated the problem - making farmland unusable or water undrinkable.

Starting Monday, 3,000 legislators, selected by China's Communist Party, gather for the annual National People's Congress. This year, the delegates are expected to focus on the problems of China's farmlands.

Premier Wen Jiabao's keynote speech at the opening session Monday is expected to address the many problems China faces despite its breakneck economic growth.

David Kelly is a senior research fellow in the East Asian Institute at the University of Singapore. He says China's leaders worry that rural unrest threatens to undermine the political order.

"The question has now come home to the leadership, is this quality growth? Is this sustainable growth? Is growth at any cost a target they can afford?" Kelly explained.

State-owned news media report that legislators next week also would consider eliminating the re-education through labor law. That law allows police to skirt the judicial system and send suspects to forced labor camps for minor offenses such as prostitution and petty theft, for up to four years without trial.

The legislators also are expected to pass a controversial law to grant private property the same status as state-owned property. The law has been debated for 10 years because party conservatives wanted to maintain the special status of state-owned property traditionally held in communist governments.

Legislators also are likely to approve a law to make foreign and domestic enterprises pay the same 25 percent tax rate. Currently, foreign businesses enjoy a lower tax rate average of about 15 percent to encourage outside investment.

During the NPC session, officials will announce economic growth targets and an expected increase in defense spending. The United States and other developed nations have expressed concerns about China's lack of transparency in its defense spending and its reasons for its military build-up.

A powerless advisory body to the NPC, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, will meet Saturday to voice complaints and develop suggestions to China's legislators.