Chinese farmers will pay lower medical bills and tuition fees for their children as the central government increases spending on rural areas this year.
According to the budget plan tabled on Sunday to the national legislative session, the central government will earmark 339.7 billion yuan (US$42.4 billion) for the country's 800 million farmers, agriculture and rural projects.
The planned spending figure represents an increase of 42.4 billion yuan, up 14.2 percent over last year's expenditure, and 21. 45 percent of the total increased spending by the central government for this year.
The drastic increase indicates a major shift of focus of the Chinese central government in planning its budget for this and coming years, a move to honor its commitment to narrow the widening gap between urban and rural areas.
China launched a campaign last year to build new countryside to improve the living standards of the country's rural residents through coordinated rural and urban development and increased investment.
Chinese farmers earn less than one third of urban workers, yet they have no access to subsidized medical services, and millions are too poor to afford tuition fees for their children.
China will allocate a large part of its increased spending on education, culture and health to the countryside this year.
The central government also plans to double its subsidies for farmers if they join a state-backed medical cooperative fund designed to reduce the financial burdens of farmers.
Governments at central and local levels contribute 40 yuan annually in subsidies to a special account for each farmer in areas experimenting with the fund, while the farmer contributes only 10 yuan.
Forty percent of the country's counties and county-level cities and districts will be covered by the fund mechanism by the end of this year.
The central government also sets aside several billion yuan in the draft budget for funding tens of millions of poor primary and junior middle school students.
It plans to offer free nine-year compulsory education to rural students beginning next year.
The central government spent 287.5 billion yuan on programs for farmers and rural projects in 2005, up 13.3 percent over the previous year.
(Xinhua News Agency March 7, 2006)