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Improving rural living conditions vital, China's Wen says

BEIJING—China's fate depends on lifting some 750 million rural people from poor economic conditions, China's Premier Wen Jiabao said Tuesday in a rare meeting with reporters in which he also lashed out at local Communist Party officials who grab farm land.

Many local Communist Party officials have confiscated land for development, sometimes enriching themselves in the process and enraging Chinese farmers, who depend on small plots.

"We must give adequate and due compensation to farmers whose land is seized," Wen said. "We must also . . . mete out harsh and strict punishment against those who breach the laws and regulations, and illicitly seize the land of the farmers."

Wen spoke shortly after the legislature approved increasing annual spending by 14 percent, to $42 billion, to help China's peasants deal with the crushing costs of health care and other social and economic problems. China's peasants earn barely a third of what their urban counterparts make, and rural unrest has been rising. More than 200 protests a day occur in China.

If China's leaders can strengthen development of the countryside, it will boost domestic demand, Wen said, and "build China's economy and society on more solid ground."

Wen stopped short of saying that China would allow peasants to own the land they till, saying only that they'll have the right to farm it "forever." Farmers have long leases, but the state owns the land.

China is well into its third decade of economic reform, and its economy has become the fourth largest in the world. Yet the ruling party is beset by more problems as a wealth gap yawns between rural and urban areas.

Surprisingly broad ideological debate over China's moves toward private property erupted during the just-concluded session of the National People's Congress, the docile parliament, and Wen mentioned it indirectly during his annual appearance before the news media.

"We need to consistently and unswervingly press ahead with reform and opening up," Wen said. "Although there will be difficulties in the way ahead, we cannot stop. Backpedaling offers no way out."

Legislators were expected to approve a long-awaited property law during this year's session, but fierce debate about the balancing of state and private rights postponed its passage indefinitely. The right to private property was written into China's constitution in 2004 but has yet to be codified fully into law.

Wen acknowledged that the government has fallen short on environmental protection, but said it's now emphasizing sustainable development.

He downplayed concerns about China's Internet censorship, urging private Internet content providers to "exercise more self-discipline" in what they put online.

China has some 111 million Internet users among its 1.3 billion people, and the government imposes such strict control on the online world that outside experts refer to the censorship as the "Great Firewall."

Wen didn't use the word "censorship." He said China practices "Internet management" in a manner "consistent with the established international practice." He asserted that China has freedom of expression, but said that "every citizen in the country should consciously . . . abide by the laws and order in order to safeguard national social and collective interests."

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group, said China has jailed 48 Internet users for messages or essays they've posted online. Vaguely worded laws allow authorities to accuse people easily of state security violations if they criticize the government.

Cisco Systems, Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have come under heavy criticism for helping China build or maintain the Great Firewall. In a Capitol Hill hearing last month, legislators lambasted Yahoo for providing the Chinese government with user information that led to the arrests of two Chinese Internet users.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Wen Jiabao

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