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China's parliament opens with focus on social harmony

Premier Wen Jiabao announced a series of measures to promote social harmony.

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China's parliament started its annual session Monday morning with Premier Wen Jiabao announcing a series of measures to promote social harmony, protect the environment and reduce energy consumption.

"Social harmony and stability as well as a better life are the aspiration of all the people and an important goal of the (Chinese) government," Wen said, while delivering a work report to 2,890 lawmakers present at the Fifth Session of the Tenth National People's Congress (NPC).

In his 36-page report, Wen extolled the government's "great achievements" in 2006 but admitted that "a number of serious problems affecting the people's interests have not been properly addressed" and that "life remains difficult for many low-income people".

Wen promised in his report that the government will invest heavily this year to address problems concerning people's daily lives, especially in the rural areas.

China's rapid economic growth has taken nearly 200 million people out of poverty over the past two decades but the unbalanced development has also left millions of the poor struggling with rising educational, medical and housing costs.

"This year, we will completely stop collecting tuition and miscellaneous fees from all rural students receiving compulsory education," Wen announced, adding that the policy will ease the financial burden of 150 million rural families with children attending primary or middle schools.

He also announced an ambitious plan to set up "a nationwide basic minimum cost of living allowance system" for the rural residents, who traditionally have no access to social security coverage.

"This is another measure to resolve issues related to agriculture, rural areas and farmers and build a harmonious society," he said.

"It's government's responsibility to serve the people and address their concerns. We'll see how the government implements its promises to achieve social harmony," NPC deputy Kang Fengying told Xinhua outside the meeting hall.

Against the backdrop of a host of social problems and conflicts, the ruling Communist Party of China has in recent years brought up the concept of "social harmony".

Official statistics show that urban residents' annual average income is three times higher than that of the rural residents. The former reached 11,759 yuan in 2006, while the latter stood at a mere 3,587 yuan.

Outlining the government's major tasks for 2007, the last year of its five-year term, Wen said the government expects to keep the economy growth at about eight percent, based on structural improvement and reduced consumption of energy and better environmental protection.

Last year, China failed to reach its pollution control targets, and experts attributed the failure to a faster-than-expected 10.7 percent GDP growth and higher energy consumption.

Listing a series of measures to cut energy consumption, Wen promised to the lawmakers that the government will make efforts in energy saving, environmental protection and the protection of arable land so as to change the country's economic growth pattern.

The Chinese top economic planning organ also said that it would improve tax collection and management and raise taxes for high-income earners.

"China is suffering the heavy burden left over by the planned economy and all those problems concern social harmony and stability," said Li Dun, a professor with the Research Center on Contemporary China under the Qinghua University.

"Those goals (outlined by Premier Wen) cannot be easily achieved by solely depending on the central government. More public participation and supervision are needed. Government accountability should also be heightened," Li said.

During the 11-day meeting, NPC deputies will also deliberate on two major law drafts -- a draft property law which grants equal protection to public and private properties, and the draft of a unified corporate tax law which levies equal taxation for domestic and overseas-funded companies.