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China Promises Relief for Impoverished Farmers as National People's Congress Opens - 2004-03-05

China's main legislative body began its yearly 10-day session Friday with Communist leaders promising to work harder to close the growing gap between the country's rich and poor.

Nearly 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress - some dressed in colorful traditional costumes - gathered at Beijing's Great Hall of the People Friday. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao outlined for them a long list of challenges that the government faces this year.

Mr. Wen says rural incomes have grown too slowly, and he warns the task of increasing employment and social security is arduous.

The delegates are expected to approve constitutional changes that include safeguards on private property and the protection of human rights.

Also high on the legislators' agenda is Taiwan, a thorny issue that goes back five decades. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to use force if it appeared that the island - self-governed since 1949 - might be moving toward formal independence.

Prime Minister Wen on Friday said China will never allow the island to declare independence. However, he sounded a conciliatory tone by offering to resume negotiations with the island's leadership. Taiwan's government dismissed the offer as rhetoric.

While Taiwan figured prominently on Wen Jiabao's speech Friday, many Chinese said it is their personal living conditions that matter more. People polled ahead of this session of the National People's Congress said they hope the government will take steps to improve the lot of those who are not benefiting from China's economic boom.

Nowhere is the income disparity more evident than in China's countryside, far from the gleaming new skyscrapers and traffic-choked freeways of the industrialized cities along the eastern coast.

In Shanxi province, a 48 year-old buckwheat farmer who identifies himself only as Wang says he can never dream of affording a car like many people in Beijing and Shanghai now own.

He says he is happy just to have enough to eat. Realistically speaking, he says, most city people have money, but here in the village, he said, people are very poor.

He said he is not paying attention to the National People's Congress because, he says, he does not believe there is much the government can do anyway. Mr. Wang says, "There are too many of us."

Like most of China's farmers, Mr. Wang has no access to public health benefits and no pension plan for when he reaches an advanced age. He says he will depend more on the support of his four children than he will on the government.