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China Pledges Billions  to Boost Farm  Incomes - 2004-02-09

China has announced it will invest up to $18 billion this year to help bridge the income gap between the country's impoverished farmers and its increasingly wealthy urban class.

Farmers have been among those who have least benefited from China's explosive economic growth over the past two decades. Officials say last year farmer's incomes grew only four percent, compared to that of urban residents with more than nine percent.

That disparity is cause for concern among China's Communist leaders, who worry it may lead to instability in the countryside, where the majority of the population still lives.

Officials Monday also said China experienced a significant drop in grain production last year, due to a rapidly advancing urbanization process in which farmland is being converted to city dwellings.

It was with these concerns in mind that the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the country's cabinet issued a policy paper stating its plans to boost support for rural development.

Chen Xiwen, the deputy director of the cabinet's Central Financial Work Leading Group, told reporters the government is working to reverse what he referred to as a "grim trend" of income growth among farmers, who he said make up 60 percent of China's population. He said that since farmers occupy such a big proportion of China's population, it is very important to increase their income at a faster pace.

China in recent years has seen a drive toward urbanization, with millions of farmers finding better-paying jobs in the cities. Urbanization, however, has also brought problems relating to land acquisition, in which farmers often complain that government-backed developers are forcing them from their properties without giving adequate compensation.

At Monday's cabinet briefing, officials cited the need for better land acquisition rules. Even if these are adopted, some doubt whether their implementation is possible in the countryside.

A recent law guaranteeing property rights for farmers has been tough to implement, largely because farms in China are still technically owned by collectives and controlled by Communist Party members, says Li Ping, a staff attorney with the Rural Development Institute office in Beijing.

"Because farms are under collective ownership, and collective cadres in many cases throughout the country try to lessen the importance of this law and try to regain their power over the land," said Mr. Li.

Regardless of the difficulties, a drop in grain production and the threat of instability have prompted Chinese officials to do something quickly to improve the lot of farmers.