Senior Chinese leaders and political advisors have warned against a further widening of the rural-urban gap despite the country's fast economic growth over the past three decades.
"The imbalance in rural-urban development is worsening and taking on many forms," Vice Premier Hui Liangyu said on Tuesday.
Hui was addressing a special conference held by the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top political advisory body.
The income ratio between urban and rural areas grew from 2.6:1 in the late 1990s to 3.3:1 last year, according to data from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
NDRC Vice Minister Zhu Zhixin said rural public services were lagging behind those in urban areas, especially in the fielf of education, culture and healthcare.
For example, 80 percent of the nation's schools in poor repair are in the countryside, while 60 percent of hospitals at township level need to upgrade facilities such as X-ray machines.
Zhu said rural residents generally have poorer access to educational and medical services.
The government invested 5.6 billion yuan (US$818 million) in rural cultural undertakings last year, 28 percent of the total national spending on culture.
In addition, key services such as water, transport, power and communications are in a much worse state in relatively underdeveloped central and western China than in better developed eastern areas, Zhu said.
More than 250 million rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water, nearly 100 towns have no access to roads, and there are still 2 million rural people without electricity.
From time to time the lawful rights and interests of rural residents are infringed, with farmers often unable to get due compensation in cases of government land acquisition.
"There have been frequent disputes over land acquisitions in recent years," Zhu added.
Most participating officials and experts blamed the different policies applied to urban and rural areas.
Hui said this twin-track approach had been the largest obstacle hindering balanced development.
For example, many aspects of the social security system are beyond the reach of rural residents. This is based on the old assumption that, by being so close to the land and having ready access to food, rural residents can more easily take care of themselves.
This argument is less convincing today given the far higher costs rural residents face for education and medical services than previous generations.
In fact, with the development of the rural economy in China, the function of "land security" has been weakened and has hindered the further development of the rural economy.
The reform of rural land use, the household registration system and rural financial system should be given priority in integrating urban and rural development, said top Chinese political advisor Jia Qinglin.
"It is a historic task to balance urban and rural development and promote the integration of the urban and rural economies," Jia told the conference.
Jia, a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Political Bureau, added that goals such as increasing rural incomes and promoting agricultural efficiency should be incorporated into the country's overall plans for economic development.
Renowned economist Li Yining called for various reforms in rural land use.
"We should change the current housing management system and enable farmers to mortgage the property to raise funds", which will give a great boost to the development of rural financial services, Li said.
With regard to farmers' housing, further legislation is needed to recognize their property rights, he added.
CPPCC Standing Committee member Li Deshui further suggested more flexible management of agricultural land.
(China Daily September 4, 2008)