Jiang Zemin, in a speech widely reported in the official media yesterday, said China's economic reforms had posed new contradictions and problems for agriculture. Their solution, he warned, had a direct bearing on the 'stability and prosperity of the whole country'.
His comments came as the central government is struggling to ensure that the peasants are properly paid for this autumn's harvest.
'Top leaders at all levels of government must personally take charge of agricultural and rural works,' Mr Jiang said. Most of the problems alluded to by the Communist Party chief, who is also China's President, have been in evidence for well over a year, but a high-profile official campaign to improve peasants' lifestyles has so far had limited success.
China's 900 million farmers, who were among the first to benefit from economic reform in the early 1980s, when they were allowed to take control of their land and sell produce on the open market, now find themselves rapidly slipping behind the fast-growing urban regions.
This wealth gap has been exacerbated by extortionate and arbitrary taxes levied on farmers by local authorities desperate to raise funds to invest in the speculative real-estate and business ventures that have sprung up with the economic reforms.
The most widespread source of rural misery has been the practice of using worthless IOUs to pay for the proportion of staple crops still sold to the state under the agricultural quota system. President Jiang's forthright warning, issued at a national conference on agriculture held by the Communist Party Central Committee this week, comes just as China's second harvest for the year is being collected and follows efforts by the central authorities to discourage local governments from issuing any more IOUs this year.
Rural protests over the past year have already resulted in near-riots by increasingly impoverished farmers in some areas. Concern about social stability and fears that Communist Party support is fast eroding among the peasants appeared to be behind Mr Jiang's announcement that grassroots government and party organisations would be re-established in rural areas within the next five years.
Last week the People's Bank of China's vice-president, Dai Xianglong, said that at least 110bn yuan (about pounds 10bn) would be needed this autumn to purchase the main agricultural products such as rice, maize, soya and cotton.
This month's harvest is better than expected: grain output will fall only 10 million tonnes from the 340 million tonnes produced during the same period last year, even though some farmers did not bother to cultivate their land because of the lack of financial incentive.