Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has closed China's annual two week session of Parliament, saying the country's greatest challenge is to alleviate the grinding poverty of 800 million farmers. It is likely to be the popular Chinese official's last news conference ahead of a crucial leadership transition later this year.
Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said that during his four-year tenure, the government made great progress in carrying out economic reforms. He listed streamlining unprofitable state companies, cutting a bloated bureaucracy and boosting the standard of living standards for many civil servants and pensioners.
But Mr. Zhu said his biggest headache is how to raise 800 million rural Chinese out of poverty.
At his annual news conference in Beijing Friday, Mr. Zhu said China's rapid economic growth has not extended to farmers, who supply more agricultural products than are in demand, driving down prices.
Mr. Zhu worries the problem will only get worse for farmers because of China's recent entry to the World Trade Organization. He says China is bracing for a flood of cheap agricultural imports from the United States as a result of lower tariffs mandated by the WTO.
Overall, however, Mr. Zhu played up his achievements in reforming China's economy. He said China is likely to reach its goal of seven percent economic growth this year. He defends the country's $37 billion in deficit spending as necessary to boost domestic demand and improve infrastructure.
The prime minister brushed aside several questions about who will succeed him when he retires next year. He said every time he answers a question about succession, it gives rise to useless speculation. He urged reporters to be patient, as the answer would be known fairly soon.
Mr. Zhu dazzled the Chinese public and foreign leaders alike when he became a reform-minded prime minister in 1998, demanding 100 coffins, 99 for enemies of reform and one for himself. He will step down from his Communist Party post later this year, and from his government post next year.