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China Faces Protests from Farmers Amid Rural Reforms

Top Chinese officials are calling for major rural reforms this year, saying lower taxes and higher incomes are vital to the country's economy and stability. The call for change follows reports of a violent protest by impoverished farmers angered by high taxes.

An editorial in a key Communist Party newspaper says China cannot prosper until its farmers are lifted out of poverty. Three-quarters of the country's 1.3 billion people are farmers and their incomes average less than one dollar a day.

That is far less than the income of people in China's prosperous eastern cities, which have benefited from two decades of economic reform. The People's Daily editorial follows a meeting of top legislative and cabinet officials in Beijing this week about the farm situation. They called for improvements in the quality and efficiency of farm work along with efforts to boost rural incomes.

Participants in the annual conference also called for speeding up infrastructure projects and improvements in medical care and education for rural areas.

The urgency of farm reform is underlined by reports that enraged farmers in Henan province recently threw stones and overturned cars to fight off tax collectors they view as corrupt and unfair.

Taxes in rural areas are levied for slaughtering animals, fertilizer, water, and housing. The taxes are supposed to be capped at five percent of a farm family's income, but labor activists say the limit is sometimes ignored. Reports of rural protests have become more common recently.

But China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said such unrest should be kept in perspective. Mr. Sun said China is stepping up the pace of reforms, but it is a large country and there are individual cases where people are not satisfied. He said local governments will work hard to carry out reforms and care for the well being of the public.

China's impoverished farmers face more foreign competition, since the country joined the World Trade Organization. Highly mechanized foreign producers often can sell grain at lower prices than China's poorly equipped farmers. Observers say that situation is expected to increase unemployment and the potential for rural unrest.