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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 March 2006, 10:27 GMT
China pledges help for rural poor
Wen Jiabao
Wen Jiabao said China must pay more attention to social equity
China's key annual political event has opened, with the government promising to take measures to close the divide between the new rich and numerous poor.

Premier Wen Jiabao addressed 3,000 delegates at the National People's Congress in Beijing.

He predicted China's economy would grow by 8% this year and by an average of 7.5% over the next four years.

He promised extra money for rural areas and farmers, to spread growing wealth to the impoverished countryside.

"Building a 'new socialist countryside' is a major historic task," Mr Wen told the conference.

As the conference got under way, thousands of security personnel swarmed around Tiananmen Square, which was blocked off to the public.

Protesters were prevented from reaching the area and there were reports of at least one arrest, although this could not be independently confirmed.

Discontent growing

He said the government plans to spend 340bn yuan ($42bn; 24bn) this year upgrading agriculture, and billions more on rural social services.

The government is concerned about growing rural unrest as the hundreds of millions of rural poor are left behind by China's surging urban economy.

Delegates to consultative body of the congress
The NPC is a major part of the Chinese political year

Its own figures report 87,000 protests and other incidents of discontent last year.

The "new socialist countryside" is the buzz phrase in the Communist Party at the moment, says the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing.

Tackling rural tensions is a priority, as there is a sense that if they continue to grow they could pose a major threat to Chinese stability.

"Some deeply seated conflicts that have accumulated over a long time have yet to be fundamentally resolved, and new problems have arisen that cannot be ignored," Mr Wen said.

China must "pay more attention to social equity and social stability so that all the people can enjoy the fruits of reform and development".

Military growth

Mr Wen also addressed the prickly issue of Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.

"It is the people's will for cross-Strait relations to develop in a direction of peace, stability and mutual benefit," he said.

On the eve of the Congress, China announced defence spending would increase by 14% - the latest in a series of big annual rises which have prompted concern from neighbouring countries.

There are fears among some in Taiwan that if it declares formal independence, China will attack.

Watch part of the Chinese premier's address

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