Page last updated at 07:30 GMT, Sunday, 16 November 2008

Chinese 'living longer than ever'

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Scavenger in China
The gap between rich and poor has grown

A UN report on China says the lives of its people have been vastly improved over the last three decades.

Poverty has fallen, adult literacy has climbed and Chinese people are now living longer than ever, it says.

But despite rapid economic progress, new problems have emerged, such as the gap between rich and poor.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which published the report, says these problems need urgent attention.

The report, entitled Basic Public Services for 1.3 Billion People, comes just weeks before China celebrates 30 years of economic reforms.

During this period, the Chinese government has largely ditched central planning in favour of the free market.

'Stunning achievements'

These reforms, started by the late, former leader Deng Xiaoping, have brought spectacular results, as the report makes clear.

"The speed, scope and magnitude of the improvements… rank among the most stunning achievements in the history of human development," says the UN's chief representative in China, Khalid Malik, in the report.

Between 1978 and 2007, rural poverty fell from 30.7% to just 1.6%, according to the UN.

But new problems have emerged, with not everyone benefiting equally from rapid economic expansion.

Rural areas lag behind urban areas, the east coast is richer that the western hinterland and there is a large wealth gap between different social groups.

Schoolchildren in the wealthy coastal city of Shanghai receive 10 times more funding than some rural pupils, the report says.

Rural registration

According to the UNDP, one problem is the Chinese system that requires all citizens to be registered in one particular place.

People usually receive welfare benefits in the area they are registered, which brings difficulties if they move.

This is a particular problem for the tens of millions of rural people who move to the cities to find work.

Chinese leaders have already acknowledged the existence of some of these problems, and have launched programmes to solve them.

The report makes it clear that the country now has the money to fix some of these problems.

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