China's parliament started its annual full session Monday morning with Premier Wen Jiabao announcing a series of measures to promote social harmony.
"Social harmony and stability as well as a better life are the aspiration of all the people and an important goal for the work of the government," Wen said, when 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 also 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 citizens."
China's rapid economic growth has brought nearly 200 million people out of poverty over the past two decades, but the unbalanced development has also left millions of the poor struggling in agony with rising educational, medical and housing costs.
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.
"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.
Wen also announced an ambitious plan to set up "a nationwide basic minimum cost of living allowance system" for the rural residents, who traditionally had no access to social security coverage.
"This is another major measure in the work to resolve issues related to agriculture, rural areas and farmers and build a harmonious society," he said.
Other major spending plans include a 201.9 billion yuan investment from the central government to improve the social security network, and a 10.1 billion yuan subsidy from the central budget to expand the coverage of a cooperative medicare system to 80 percent of China's rural areas.
The premier's announcements have won the hearts of the lawmakers, who repeatedly applauded throughout Wen's speech.
"It's the 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.”
Chinese leaders have stressed on many occasions that to build a "harmonious socialist society," which features "democracy, a rule of law, equity, sincerity, fraternity, vitality, stability and the harmony of humans and nature," is a historic task for the country.
In response to the mounting public complaints about a widening wealth gap, Wen promised on Monday that the government will take measures to increase people's incomes, especially those with low and middle incomes.
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.
In a draft report delivered to the lawmakers on Monday, the State Development and Reform Commission said it will "appropriately raise the labor share in the primary distribution of income" and "further standardize income distribution in state-owned enterprises and institutions, especially in monopoly industries."
The Chinese top economic planning group also said that it will 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 Tsinghua 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.
Outlining the government's major tasks in 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, 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 greater efforts in energy saving, environmental protection, and the protection of arable land so as to change the country's economic growth pattern.
In his six-part report, the premier also briefed the lawmakers about the government's plan on economic and financial reforms and measures to improve governance.
Monday's session was chaired by chairman of the NPC Standing Committee Wu Bangguo.
Top Party and state leaders Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Jia Qinglin, Zeng Qinghong, Huang Ju, Wu Guanzheng, Li Changchun and Luo Gan were present when the session opened at 9:00 AM Beijing time.
Also tabled to the lawmakers on Monday were reports on the implementation of the 2006 plan for national economic and social development and on the 2007 draft plan for national economic and social development, and a report on the central and local budgets.
During the 11.5-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.
Highlights of Premier Wen's Government Work Report
(Xinhua News Agency March 5, 2007)