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Rural Roads Plan to Link Remote Villages
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Teenagers who dream of riding bicycles to school instead of trudging along bumpy village paths.

Pregnant women in isolated villages who want to give birth in hospital, not on the way there.

And senior citizens who have never seen a bus, but want to explore the world.

These rural people's dreams are set to be answered by a new countryside program.

Minister of Communications Li Shenglin said the socialist countryside program will help usher in dramatic changes in the lives of millions of villagers and farmers.

"Not only will villages be connected to highways, but villagers will also have access to vehicles within a few years," said Li, who was elevated to his current post from deputy minister in the National Development and Reform Commission last year.

In an interview with China Daily, Li, also a former mayor of Tianjin, said China would continue to invest heavily in rural road construction, which has picked up since 2003 when the government began to seek more balance in the development of rural and urban regions.

During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), the government plans to build or upgrade a million kilometers of rural roads, more than half of the current total length of China's expressways and highways.

Li urged local governments to share the burden. "The central investment will not be enough and we will actively seek funding from local governments and other investors."

The new roads will be mainly built in old revolutionary bases, border areas, poor regions and major grain producing centers.

Before 2003, the government focused on linking provincial capitals, major cities and towns; less than 2 billion yuan (US$250 million) went into rural road networks annually.

Li admitted that the picture in many rural areas was bleak, and building roads between villages was difficult, needing money, technology and support from local governments. In the poorer regions, the problems are particularly serious.

Farmers in Tongjian, in southwest China's Sichuan Province, can now travel to the provincial capital Chengdu in only a couple of hours, whereas it once took a whole day.

"But I still have a complaint," said 61-year-old Ju Hua, a villager in Yangbo Township of Tongjian, which Li and Premier Wen Jiabao have visited.

The villages around Ju's home are mountainous and linked by poor roads, of which nearly half are sometimes impassable due to flooding.

"Nowadays, we can reach larger cities fairly easily, but it is much more difficult to get to other villages," said Ju.

"As villagers we hope we can one day walk on the same smooth roads as our urban cousins."

He was cheered by news that Li is confident all China's administrative villages will be connected to highways by 2010.

At present, more than 380,000 villages are not linked by pitch or cement roads, and about 40,000 villages do not even have paved roads, according to information on the ministry's website.

About 170,000 kilometers of rural highways will be built this year, Li said, adding that the ministry would try its best to build highways over existing roads and not farmland.

Along with a national highway network, the ministry plans to build a bus network in rural areas so that farmers without cars can travel.

At the end of last year, there were 1.93 million kilometers of inter-provincial, inter-county and inter-township roads, including 41,000 kilometers of expressways.

(China Daily June 19, 2006)

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