China said it will be a long, hard task to help its impoverished farmers. The government plans to speed up urban development and better protect the rights of migrant workers to raise the incomes of the rural poor.

China's top farm official said more must be done to narrow the huge gap between urban and rural incomes.

Agriculture Minister Du Qinglin said at a news conference Monday that rural incomes rose by just 4.8 percent last year. That compares with average urban income growth of more than 13 percent. Mr. Du said prices for farm goods have stayed low for several years, and rural residents now earn less from farming than they did five years ago.

Mr. Du said China's entry to the World Trade Organization increases pressure on farmers because of a flood of high-quality agricultural imports. But he said it will take time for China's farmers to become more competitive. His comments come almost halfway through the annual two-week session of China's National People's Congress. Throughout the legislative session, officials have stressed that the government's top priorities must be easing poverty, helping farmers and creating jobs for the country's millions of unemployed workers.

The ruling Communist Party is concerned that angry farmers and jobless workers could become a threat to social stability and the party's rule.

Officials say the government is reforming the burdensome rural tax system to help farmers. But they emphasize that the key to raising incomes in the countryside is to accelerate urbanization and encourage farmers to seek jobs in the cities.

Chen Xiwen, vice president of a State Council department on agriculture, said the government has passed new regulations to protect migrant workers.

He says Beijing has ordered local governments to stop discriminating against migrants, investigate unscrupulous employers and improve work safety.

China's 100 million migrant workers from the countryside have long been second-class citizens in the cities. They are not entitled to benefits such as medical insurance or education for their children. They perform the lowest-paid work and often face long delays in receiving wages, if they ever get paid at all.