When President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao appeared on TV screens weeks ago celebrating Lunar New Year with ordinary farmers, it was indeed symbolic.
Many of the two leaders' recent public appearances outside Beijing have had a rural feel, which is very much in tune with, and representative of, their proposal to build a "new countryside."
One thing that defines and to some extent distinguishes their statesmanship, however, is political pragmatism.
A low-profile study session on "new countryside" that ended Monday in the secluded courtyard of the Central Party School is widely seen as the prelude to all-out action.
Immediately afterward, the official roadmap was unveiled yesterday, when Xinhua News Agency published the CPC Central Committee's Document No.1 for 2006.
The Hu-Wen edition of "new countryside" rose to a new height at the Party School forum, which gathered both Hu and Wen, as well as 200 or so Party and government chiefs from the provinces and ministries. At the event, the two added ecological well-being to their previous blueprint of the ideal rural life.
"New countryside," as interpreted by the two, incorporated higher productivity, better living standard, communal civility, democratic management, as well as a clean and tidy look.
If that version of "new countryside" is reflective of the leadership's appreciation of harmony in civil life, the inclusion of an ecological perspective has extended harmony to people's interaction with the environment.
The proposal for a "new countryside" is not new in modern China. Advocates and experiments date back to even before the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
But its re-emergence on our national agenda is the result of an extensive rethink about rural life in the full context of national development.
It is increasingly clear that many of the problems pestering urban China and the national leadership have their roots outside the cities. And the decades-old neglect of the countryside in national development planning is not only irrational, but unfair.
Economists' rediscovery of the countryside has a lot to do with expectations of our rural residents' largely dormant demands to sustain the country's proud growth story.
The government has made repeated promises to boost farmers' incomes. To reduce farmers' financial burdens, it has cancelled agricultural tax and promised to pay tuition for nine-year compulsory education in rural areas.
The idea of bringing rural areas into the sphere of public finance and make it a priority indicates a meaningful shift in the leadership's development philosophy.
Making industries feed the countryside and cities support rural regions in return is not only an economic move to balance the national economic picture. It is repaying a long overdue moral debt. We must address the rural-urban divide, not because it has become a clumsy drag on national development, but because the countryside is home to the majority of Chinese citizens.
A substantial and persistent financial commitment is crucial for rebuilding rural China. The humble yet challenging tasks to grant rural Chinese access to clean and convenient running water, clean fuel, decent kitchens and toilets, paved roads and affordable medical services require that.
But the "new countryside" on the leadership's drawing board entails more.
The new Party paper offers a comprehensive course of action that touches upon all aspects of the anticipated upgrade of Chinese rural life.
Most of all, we need to see rural areas become a natural part of our scholarly and official discourse on development.
The study session at the Party school was considered a venue for consensus building. We do need genuine consensus on this, a consensus not only among Party and government decision-makers, but among society as a whole.
The passionate concern Hu and Wen have conveyed on their trips to poor rural communities needs to be shared by all in leadership positions.
(China Daily February 22, 2006)