BEIJING has stepped up measures to contain the rural crisis by invoking patriarch Deng Xiaoping's warning about social upheaval being precipitated by disgruntled peasants. And senior cadres have fanned out across the country calling on local officials to improve the living standards of the nearly 900 million farmers. The latest issue of the official news weekly New Century quoted Mr Deng as warning against political instability spawned by malcontent in the countryside. ''If economic trouble occurs in the 1990s, it is very likely to be in agriculture,'' Mr Deng said. ''If there is agricultural trouble, the country would not recover for many years and the development of the overall economic and social situation would be severely affected.'' While Mr Deng's warning, which was delivered last year, has been reported in pro-Chinese journals in Hongkong, it is the first time it has been disclosed to a mainland audience. Rural unrest, including riots in Sichuan and Anhui provinces, have increased since the Communist Party adopted Mr Deng's radical market reforms last year. The discontent is in large part due to abuse by local officials, who have either levied dozens of unauthorised taxes on farmers or diverted agricultural funds for personal gain - leaving farmers with ''white slips of paper'', or IOUs, for their crops. Agricultural officials said Mr Deng had been alerted to the problem and that he had recently repeated the warning that China faced social instability if agriculture was ignored. ''The weight of the burden on farmers has exceeded what they can tolerate,'' New Century said. As a result, it added, relations between local officials and peasants were ''extremely strained''. In a frank expose, the magazine equated the current situation to China before the 1949 communist revolution, when corrupt Kuomintang (KMT) officials sowed the seeds for their own demise by overtaxing peasants. It reported dissent within the party, quoting one village party secretary as condemning the present state of affairs. ''In the past, we used to say that the KMT levied a lot of taxes and the Communist Party held a lot of meetings. Now it's different, the party does both,'' the leader said. This month top cadres including party chief Jiang Zemin and Vice-Premier Li Lanqing toured the provinces to assess the gravity of rural discontent. The New China News Agency yesterday quoted Mr Li as telling officials in Henan to improve their relations with the peasants. The Vice-Premier, who was in the agricultural province from Friday until Tuesday, said local officials must ensure that funds be set aside for paying farmers. ''We must help farmers find sales outlets for their produce,'' Mr Li said. ''We must definitely not pay them with IOUs.''