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China Shifts Attention to Troubled Countryside

When China's annual parliamentary session starts Sunday, a new reform plan for the troubled countryside will be at the top of the agenda. Faced with growing unrest, China's leaders have vowed to help the rural population catch up economically with city dwellers.

Two-thirds of China's population, around 800 million people, live in the countryside. While China's rapid economic growth has created wealth in the cities, millions of people in rural areas cannot afford to send their children to school or pay for basic health care. The average annual income of rural residents is just $400, less than a third of what the average urban resident makes.

Economic inequality has fuelled a growing tide of rural unrest. Violence is often sparked when local officials confiscate farmland and sell it to developers without offering farmers adequate compensation.

Alarmed by the social instability, China's leaders have developed an ambitious project to create what they call a "new socialist countryside." The proposal is the centerpiece of China's next five-year plan, which the parliament, the National People's Congress, will approve at its annual meeting starting Sunday.

The new policy aims to raise rural incomes through a combination of subsidies, tax cuts, debt relief for local governments and infrastructure spending.

Jonathan Unger, director of the contemporary China center at Australia's National University, says it remains to be seen whether the government will deliver on its promises.

"The question though is whether this is just pretty language or whether the government is willing to follow through in terms of providing the budget support that will be needed," he said. "In the past, the government has announced programs that sound very good…but do not provide the money for it."

But the new program does not involve changing rural land policy. Farmland is now collectively held by villages and leased to individual families for 30 years. Only the government can sell land to developers. Some experts believe this system does not give farmers enough control.

Li Ping is director of the Beijing office of the Rural Development Institute, an international land law and policy group. He believes farmers need a more secure land tenure system.

"Through such mechanism, farmers themselves will be able to make a long-term investment in land, as well as make a long-term diversification of their agricultural production and in the end to make the farmers, the rural countryside, more prosperous," he said.

Li says insecure land rights facilitate the corruption of local officials, who often take the lion's share of profits from the sale of land seized illegally from farmers.