Li Peng offers little cheer to the hard-up

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Political and social stability was "the basic prerequisite" for reform and development, China's Prime Minister, Li Peng, told the opening of the annual meeting of parliament yesterday.

Outlining the Communist Party's national plan for the next five years, he admitted there were still "many problems and difficulties ahead" and called for renewed efforts against crime, corruption, "huge" regional wealth disparities, and the shrinkage in agricultural land.

In line with recent edicts from President Jiang Zemin that cadres should "talk politics", Mr Li told the 2,793 delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) that China must "resist the corrosion of decadent capitalist and feudal ideas". Governments at all levels should "attach equal importance to economic development and the development of socialist culture and ideology".

China's target of quadrupling the 1980 gross national product had been achieved in 1995, five years ahead of schedule, said the Prime Minister. But calls for "vigorous education" in patriotism, collectivism and socialism were overshadowed by his blunt assessment of the challenges of the 21st century.

Diplomats said Mr Li's speech offered little in the way of new initiatives for an era which is likely to see the death of the architect of China's reform process, the 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping. Caution and stability appeared to be the Prime Minister's watchwords. The target for average annual economic growth for the next five years is 8 per cent, compared with the double-digit growth of the past three years.

Beating inflation is the priority, with the retail prices target for 1996 set at 10 per cent, a further sharp drop from 14.8 per cent last year and 21.7 per cent in 1994. The Chinese government will continue to impose "appropriately tight financial and monetary policies", said Mr Li.

Crime is a "hot topic" among delegates, following last month's murder of an NPC vice-chairman by his police bodyguard, and an armed bank robbery in north Peking. Mr Li said the government planned more crackdowns "on violent crimes, trafficking in drugs, hoodlums, underground gangs and various criminal activities". Congress members are also reportedly planning to ask for more information on China's biggest corruption scandal, involving the resignation of the Peking party secretary.

Agricultural development is seen as the most difficult task for the next 15 years. Feeding 22 per cent of the world's population from just 7 per cent of the world's arable land is a growing challenge for China.

Mr Li offered little cheer to delegates from poor provinces who have been lobbying for greater government help in easing regional wealth disparities. "Disparate development of different regions is a basic condition in China," said Mr Li. "Poverty-stricken areas should . . . eliminate poverty and become prosperous mainly by relying on their own efforts", he said.