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China pledges more help for poor while targeting steady economic growth

In his annual "state of the nation" address to parliament at the Great Hall of the People, Wen said a priority of the government would be to ensure the country's rapid social and economic development was not reckless.

In the report Wen acknowledged that "we clearly see that problems and difficulties remain" in guiding the world's fastest growing major economy while keeping 1.3 billion people happy.

He cautioned that while opening up and reforming China would remain "the driving force behind all aspects of our work" development must not happen "recklessly".

"If we do not keep this in mind, we could end up just spinning our wheels and going nowhere or even suffering serious losses," he told the near-3000 delegates at the National People's Congress.

As China has raced into the modern age, a stark lack of economic opportunities among its 800 million rural dwellers has become increasingly evident, raising fears of social unrest and turmoil.

Security around the congress remained intense with Tiananmen Square, adjacent to the hall, closed off to the public during the morning session as police and sniffer dogs patrolled the environs.

Government corruption and power abuse at the local level have been cited as major reasons hampering the development of the countryside and Wen vowed the issues would be tackled.

"Some low-income people lead difficult lives and there are more than a few factors threatening social stability," Wen said.

"Solving the problems facing agriculture, rural areas and farmers remains a top priority of all our work," said Wen.

One of the main concerns of the downtrodden rural Chinese is graft within government and Wen admitted that "formalism, bureaucracy, dishonesty, extravagance and waste are relatively severe".

"We must face the above mentioned problems squarely and continue to adopt measures to solve them," he said.

Education would be "a strategic priority" in the year ahead, particularly in the countryside where various fees for the poor would be exempted and free textbooks offered, he said to a smattering of applause.

Some 10.9 billion yuan (1.3 billion dollars) will also be allocated to help laid-off workers find jobs.

To further help farmers, agricultural taxes will be abolished in 2005, while subsidies will be increased for grain producers.

To create enough jobs for the nation's millions, Wen announced an economic growth target of eight percent this year, up from previous years when seven percent was deemed the minimum to keep enough people out of unemployment.

"Maintaining steady and rapid economic development is an important issue that the government must successfully handle," Wen said in his speech.

"This is a period of important strategic opportunities for China, and the economy should grow rapidly, but not be allowed to overheat."

But he warned of a possible return to overheating of fixed asset investment while supplies of coal, electricity, petrol and transportation "are still very tight".

There was also still "considerable" inflationary pressure on prices.

In a wide-ranging speech, Wen also said China should continue to expand its military capabilities, with modernization of the army of strategic importance to safeguard the eventual reunification of Taiwan.

China will boost its publicly-stated military spending by 12.6 percent this year to 247.7 billion yuan (29.9 billion dollars) following a nearly 15-year trend of double-digit growth in defense spending.

A key task of the NPC during its 10-day session will be to pass a law aimed at curbing any Taiwanese bid for formal independence.

Analysts fear the legislation could create the legal basis for China to take the island by force or pressure it to accept reunification, although Beijing insisted Friday it did not constitute a move towards war.

Wen repeated China's assertion that independence would never be tolerated.

"This law represents the common will and strong determination of the entire Chinese people to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and never allow secessionist forces working for Taiwan independence to separate Taiwan from China under any name or by any means," he said.

People's Daily Online

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