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Chinese Leaders Stress Economic Development in Impoverished West - 2003-03-12

The Chinese government has been pouring money into developing the country's western provinces. China's leaders consider the region's poverty an urgent problem and have a new plan to enrich the arid region.

China's western provinces have missed out on the dramatic rise in incomes and living standards the country's eastern coast has enjoyed over the past 20 years.

City dwellers on the coast earn an average of more than $90 a year each, compared with per capita income of less than $300 for rural residents.

At the annual two-week session of the National People's Congress now under way in Beijing, government leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to improve conditions in the west.

Among them are Wang Chunzheng, Vice Minister of Planning, who said the issue of increasing incomes for farmers is important to national economic development and is a top priority. He says the low rural incomes and the gap between rural and urban areas are a result of history and cannot be resolved overnight.

The west's 11 provinces, which are home to more than 300 million people, account for just 17 percent of China's gross domestic product. The region has few resources and little industry.

The region is arid, and poor farming practices and extensive logging have left much of the land bare and infertile.

The western provinces include Tibet and the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang. A Muslim separatist movement has been fighting Beijing's rule in Xinjiang for several years, and Tibetan exiles campaign for an end to what they consider a Chinese occupation. Many national leaders think economic growth may ease ethnic tensions in those areas.

The government's plan for the west stresses education, environmental protection, infrastructure development and science and technology projects.

By undertaking more ecological and environmental projects, and by focusing on technology and developing human resources, the government thinks it will lay an important foundation for western development, says Li Zibin, deputy director of the cabinet office that oversees development efforts.

A new government report forecasts that by the middle of this century the west will be "transformed into a prosperous and advanced new west where life is stable, ethnic groups are united and the landscape is beautiful."

The government's plan aims to draw in greater foreign investment. First, however, the government is working to develop the region's power generation system, railroads and highways.

The government has seen some results from its efforts. Mr. Li said GDP growth from 2000 to 2002 averaged nine percent a year in the west, which is faster than the national average of eight percent.

The government has invested more than $30 billion in the west so far, most of it on infrastructure.

However, one part of the effort to boost the west has gotten little publicity: The government is increasing the west's population by convincing Han Chinese, the nation's dominant ethnic group, to move west. Hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese have already done so.

The government hopes the Han will prove less restive than the region's minority groups and their presence will strengthen the west's allegiance to Beijing. But that strategy could backfire, because it has generated animosity in some western communities, as the immigrants quickly begin to dominate local commerce and government.