HAIKOU - China will need to take up tough reforms over the next few years to start bridging the urban-rural divide, readjusting income distribution, improving the social safety net and advancing basic public services.
All these constitute the main tasks to restructure the economy, transform the mode of growth and promote urban-rural integration, Peng Sen, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said during a keynote speech at an international forum here on Saturday.
More than 200 scholars from home and abroad gathered at the two-day forum to brainstorm the trends and challenges in urban-rural integration, which has been identified as the key to rural reforms in the coming 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).
China is drafting a comprehensive development plan for the five years, which is believed to be crucial not only for its sustainable growth but also for world economic development.
While participants shared experiences in their pilot projects to provide better public services to farmers and improve their quality of life, they also identified problems and malpractices in the name of "rural development" or "urban-rural integration".
Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Central Rural Work Leading Group, said the practice of dismantling villages and taking rural land for urban development has hurt farmers' interests.
He said the government must enhance its control over land use in rural areas while preserving household-based agriculture management.
He warned that malpractices in forced land sales for urban development may cause potential disasters, as villages formed over the centuries are now disappearing and many rural residents have lost not only their land but their historical roots.
Chi Fulin, president of the China Institute for Reform and Development - the forum host - called for setting a goal to eliminate the status of migrant workers.
"Making the migrant worker status history is a breaking point in dismantling the dual urban-rural system," Chi said.
Chi suggested that work should start during the 12th Five-Year Plan to integrate the urban-rural resident registration systems and encompass rural migrant workers who work in cities under all basic public services.
"Enabling migrant workers to become full urban residents should become a public duty of the government," Chi said. "A part of the revenue governments make from selling the land should be used to help provide basic urban housing for migrant workers."
Peng said the economic divide between the urban and rural areas is "the main barrier" in reducing urban-rural disparity. As a result, the income gap between urban and rural residents has widened from 2.8:1 in 2000 to 3.3:1 last year.
"The gap in real income is much larger if we take into account the medical care, education, social security, housing and social services that the urban residents enjoy," Peng said.
He said this has "prevented rural residents from sharing the fruits of reforms but also violated the principle of equality and justice".
Peng said that despite China's rapid urbanization over the past 30 years, about 150 million migrant workers and their families, who live and work in urban areas, have not been treated as equal to urban peers as far as social services are concerned.
"Resolving problems relating to their identity and their right to public services will help ensure healthy urbanization and social harmony," Peng said.
Meanwhile, China must also deal with inadequate rural pensions and social safety nets, incomplete urban and rural public service systems, and weak rural grassroots democratic community management, he said.
Napoleaon Navarro, deputy country director of UNDP, said China "needs to build consensus in all sectors of society" to address the problems in agriculture, rural villages and among farmers.
Better planning is needed for China to start removing all obstacles that confront the 150 million migrant workers from becoming full urban citizens, Navarro said.
China should also promote reforms to make its financial, land and other public services more equitable to rural residents, Navarro said, adding there is a need to improve the management structure to enable citizens to participate in rural governance.