12/19/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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Rural poverty threatens China's social stability, says UN report

Rural-urban divide in China is wider than in major capitalist nations. Tax system, health care, education and migrant labour management must be reformed in earnest before a "social schism" is created.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China's wealth divide between urban and rural communities is among the highest in the world, according to the China's Human Development Report 2005, a study released by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on December 16, which was prepared with the support of the central government's Development Research Centre.

Since 1980 China has succeeded in lifting 250 million people out of poverty, but in the same period the urban-rural income divide doubled.

In 2002, the richest 10 per cent of the population enjoyed 41 per cent of China's wealth, making Chinese income inequality markedly higher than that of the avowedly capitalist US.

A person living in a Chinese city earned on average US$ 1,000 a year—compared to just over US$ 300 in the countryside—and could expect to live over 5 years longer than a farmer.

"The gap in incomes has opened up within the space of one generation," the report noted. "If resolute measures are not taken now and the chance to manage the problem is lost, poverty will be passed from generation to generation, creating a social schism that will be hard to eliminate."

Forced land seizures, which leave many farmers with nothing to live on, are some of the causes of poverty. And inequalities are one of the triggers of popular protest in the countryside. They breed a sense of injustice which unemployment and corruption aggravate.

"[C]oncrete action should be taken immediately to help those at the bottom of the economic and social ladder," said Li Shi, lead author of the report.

Spending in health care and education must increase and the government must reform the tax system to transfer resources to poor areas.

People must have equal opportunities in employment, which will require a reform to the household registration system (hukou) to ensure equal rights to workers migrating to the cities.

This is a critical step to improve labour rights, particularly for the 150 million migrant workers, as well as guarantee them access to social assistance and social services like education.

The study calls for additional reforms to encourage private businesses in areas hitherto dominated by state corporations so that laid-off public sector workers can find employment.

Investing in basic health services for the rural poor is another important target.

A farmer living in Guizhou or Yunnan can expect to live until the age of 65 while an individual in Hainan or Jiangsu can live to 74.

Only 15 per cent of rural residents had medical insurance in 2004, whilst half of urban population benefited from full insurance.

The government has responded by enabling over 150 million farmers to take part in a pilot cooperative medical system in rural areas that should guarantee basic medical insurance for all. This new cooperative medical is funded with financial aid from central and local budgets and voluntary funds raised by the farmers themselves.

Another area ready for reform is education. In Tibet only half of the population can read and write compared to 97 per cent in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Less than 1.5 per cent of Tibetan children go to junior high whilst more than 60 per cent of children in big cities pursue their secondary education.

Illiteracy rate for women is more than double that of men.

Spending must be increased in education and new legislation is needed to ensure everyone gets a primary education, especially in rural areas.

The study points out that the central government plans to reform primary and middle schools, providing free textbooks to 24 million students from poor families. (PB)

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