01/03/2006, 00.00
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"New agricultural development" ignores farmers' problems

After the presentation of the new five-year-plan, many scholars warn: "Pumping funds into the countryside may unleash more corruption".

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – The Chinese government has decided to bridge the growing divide between the development of urban and rural areas with a series of investments in the agricultural sector, stipulated in the new five-year plan.

But the plans do not include any moves to adjust land policies, although land disputes were held to be the main trigger of discontent behind violent clashes in rural areas during the past years.

A new movement, entitled the "new socialist countryside", will be the focus of rural development during the eleventh Chinese economic plan. A similar slogan, "building socialist rural areas", appeared in the 1950s, but was later dismissed "as part of propaganda about building a utopian society".  

The new initiative is based on the South Korean experience 30 years ago: Beijing hopes the new movement will be comparable to that launched in the early seventies by the then president of South Korea, Park Chung-hee: Saemaul Undon, "new village movement".  

The Saemaul was introduced to counter the growing gap between the two realities and to stop the exodus of rural residents to large cities. Seoul decided to invest in rural infrastructure. It expanded road systems, built bridges, developed water supplies, rezoned land, and built warehouses, community centres and small factories. The government initiative, applied with honesty and swiftness, improved the situation within a short time and soon the quality of life in the countryside and the cities was comparable.

Zheng Lixin, deputy director of the Central Committee's policy research centre, travelled to areas in South Korea pertinent to agricultural development while writing the new policy of China's national economy. He said he had been "impressed" at how South Korea had kept the urban-rural earnings ratio at 1:0.8 or 1:0.9. China's wealth gap was likely to reach the alarming level of 3.3:1 this year, added Mr Zheng.

A more radical view was presented by a former deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture's Foreign Economic Co-operation Centre, Feng Yulin: he said that if one included spending on public services, the true wealth gap was between 60:1 and 84:1. Typically of China, urban residents have benefited from government investments in sectors like infrastructure, services and education while those in rural areas have been left to fend for themselves.

Zheng said that so far, the solution adopted by Beijing has been to encourage rural areas to increase consumption on the domestic market, thus boosting the trade cycle at home. The move has not proven to be beneficial.

 According to state media, Beijing's vision of a "new socialist countryside" consists of five components: production growth, affluence of capital, rural civilisation, a clean environment and democracy in the management of local affairs. In effect, there have been efforts to channel a substantial amount of state funds into the countryside, but the move – a move away from the traditional Marxist economy which foresees the sacrifice of the countryside in favour of urban development – provokes strongly held doubts.

The foremost concern, expressed by many scholars, is how local governments will respond to the decision. Li Jinkui , a professor at the China Development Institute in Shenzhen, an institute affiliated to the State Council, said he was worried that the campaign could become a hotbed for "the corrupt and industrialists". "Some people get excited when they hear the word 'construction'. I bet some are getting excited right now," he said.

In any case, the actual situation of farmers remains unchanged. Despite their protests against the seizure of their lands – confiscated by the government in the name of development – and lack of compensation, they have not been taken into consideration in the ultimate "great vision" which looks to construct "a richer countryside".

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