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Zhu sees threat from growing resentment

Beijing, March 5 (Reuters): Premier Zhu Rongji, in his swansong to a parliament finalising a leadership transition, today said discontent among jobless workers and struggling farmers could threaten China’s economic future.

Zhu, in his final report to the annual two-week session of parliament before retiring, said the Communist Party would have to ease the tax burden on farmers and find work or social security benefits for the growing army of urban unemployed.

The world’s fastest growing major economy should expand at least 7 per cent in 2003, with “hard work”, after a rapid 8 per cent growth in gross domestic product last year, he said.

But the tough-talking Zhu, who steered China into the World Trade Organisation, said resentment among the poor threatened the country’s prosperity. Corruption and the growing wealth gap between the cities and the countryside, where 70 per cent of China’s 1.3 billion people live, were profoundly dangerous, Zhu said in what was essentially a farewell speech at the end of a five-year term.

“We must exert a great deal of effort to resolve the problems of back pay for workers and overburdened farmers,” Zhu, 74, told 3,000 delegates in a 90-minute address in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, which was awash with red flags.

“Agricultural, village and farmers’ problems relate to the overall situation of China’s reform, opening and modernisation. We cannot neglect them or relax at any time,” he said, standing in front of a huge government seal encrusted with gold stars. “If we do not change these conditions, they will severely dampen farmers’ enthusiasm to produce, undermine the foundations of agriculture and even threaten the overall health of the national economy,” he said.

The parliament will approve the last stage of a leadership transition that will see Jiang Zemin, 76, hand the presidency to Hu Jintao, the 60-year-old head of a younger generation of leaders who replaced Jiang as party chief in November.

Parliament chairman Li Peng also retires, to be replaced by Wu Bangguo, 61. And Zhu hands over to his expected successor, Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao, 60. There was much praise of Zhu from delegates for pushing through financial reforms and helping engineer an economic boom.

“In recent years, the country has faced no small amount of hardship, but Zhu Rongji has helped China stay on a smooth path of development. The country owes a lot to him,” said delegate Chen Zongqi from the poor province of Jiangxi.

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