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China's Congress Opens With Agenda to Fix Rural Problems, Raise Military Spending


China's legislature has started is annual session with Premier Wen Jiabao laying out a plan to boost spending in the increasingly unstable and poor countryside. Chinese leaders have increased military spending and had new warnings for Taiwan to not pursue formal independence.

Premier Wen Jiabao opened the session of the National People's Congress with a long list of spending hikes for rural education, medical care, and infrastructure - all aimed at stemming rural unrest.

Wen drew applause from many of the 3,000 delegates when he said Beijing will boost its efforts to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.

He says anyone who tries to reverse this major trend will most certainly fail.

China says it wants peaceful reunification, but has indicated military force is very much an option. China on Saturday announced a nearly 15 percent increase in defense spending for this year.

The government of President Hu Jintao has promised to do more to bridge the widening gap between rich and poor. However, the matter has become more urgent for the leadership this year as the number of violent peasant uprisings continues to increase.

Beijing admits to 87,000 "mass incidents," many of them involving farmers who are angry over the taking of their land for industrial development.

Premier Wen on Sunday said "building a new socialist countryside" is a major historic task for the Communist leadership, referring to the government's general plan to help raise hundreds of millions of peasants out of poverty, in part by reducing taxes, and encouraging migration to cities.

Politics Professor Joseph Cheng, at the City University of Hong Kong, says that for the overall plan to work, China's government must tackle the problem of corruption. He says fixing this requires a system of checks and balances that is hard to maintain in a one-party system.

"The gap between the rich coastal provinces and the poor interior provinces is still widening and certainly, we cannot expect corruption to be weeded out in the foreseeable future. This of course has to do with a lack of political reform," he said.

The National People's Congress' power is largely limited to approving what the upper leadership of the Communist Party has already decided. However, the Congress' two-week session serves as a venue for the Chinese government to make public its strategy for dealing with the year's problems.

Security is usually tight during the session, but this year access to the Great Hall of the People appeared more restricted than before, with 15,000 security agents, some with dogs, keeping people away.

As they do every year in the days preceding the Congress, authorities rounded up and arrested petitioners who had come to the capital to present their grievances.