WHEN THE ANNUAL session of the National People's Congress (NPC) opens in Beijing tomorrow, the 3,000 delegates will hear many speeches from top government officials but will barely hear the voices of the farmers that account for two thirds of the population. The selection procedure makes one urban citizen equal to four rural ones, with the result that less fewer than 20 per cent of the delegates come from rural areas and most of them are local officials, not practising farmers. These 'representatives' depend for their jobs and future invitations to the NPC not on the peasants but on the Government and the Communist Party, which limits the freedom of what they can and will say. This means that, while rural issues like grain prices, illegal taxes and levies and improvements of roads and infrastructure will figure on the NPC agenda, they will be minor themes, compared to urban issues, like the reform of state companies, corruption, stimulating the economy and facing the challenge of membership of the World Trade Organisation. Instead, an outspoken academic in Beijing has appointed himself as the spokesman for the country's 800 million to 900 million farmers. He is Hu Angang, director of the Centre for China Studies run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences at Tsinghua University. 'I speak for the farmers and the migrant workers,' Mr Hu said. He is a small, intense man and prolific author, who sails about as close to the wind as he can without being labelled a dissident. Many people in the Government consider that he is too outspoken in his criticisms. In a book, Strategy of China, which came out in January, Mr Hu argues that the poverty of the farmers and the increasing gap in wealth between them and their city cousins is the result of government policy. 'Farmers account for 66 per cent of the population but receive 10-15 per cent of government spending or 1 per cent of GDP. They pay more taxes than urban people. The gap in incomes between farmers and city people is at its widest level since 1949. 'There are historical reasons for this but the most important factor is political. The farmers lack political representatives, a voice in society and channels to influence policy.' China's farmers prospered in the early years of the reform era, because farm goods were in short supply and they were able to increase output to satisfy rising demand. 'From 1978 to 1996, the price index of farm goods rose 550 per cent, taking prices to 20-40 per cent above those on the world market,' Mr Hu said. 'But, from 1996 to 2000, the price index fell 22.6 percentage points, causing a loss to farmers of more than 300 billion yuan [about HK$281 billion]. In 1997, the average farmer earned 1,092 yuan from selling his produce and by 2000, this had dropped to 600. 'In 2000, the average urban income had risen 23 percentage points from the 1997 level but those of farmers had risen only 10.5 percentage points, leading to the biggest gap in income since 1949.' This gap shows itself most clearly in indicators like access to education, health care, family planning, telecommunications, electricity, clean drinking water and transportation. Worst off are those who depend on farm products for a living. In the west, more than 60 per cent of income comes from farming and, in the worst areas, with marginal land and poor communications and little alternative employment, the percentage goes up to 80 per cent. In 1996, 155.6 million people earned less than 1,000 yuan a year and in 2000 the number had fallen to 114.5 million. Mr Hu argued that WTO entry will only make things worse for the farmers, especially those living on poor land, because cheaper imports will bring down food prices. 'They have everything to lose from liberalisation of agriculture. The Government must fulfil its obligations to the WTO. 'Even more pressing is its obligation to its 800 million farmers, to give adequate compensation for the negative impact they suffer under WTO, so that they do not become the biggest losers,' he said. Mr Hu calls this rural-urban divide 'one country, two systems' practiced by the Government for the past 50 years, in terms of residency control, education, employment, public services and taxation. Mr Hu argues that, to narrow this gap, the Government should speed up the process of urbanisation, enabling surplus farmers to leave the land and move to jobs in industry and services, and invest more in the backward western provinces. He also wants better treatment for the estimated 100 million migrant workers, who have left the farms to work in building sites, factories, restaurants and shops in the rich east and coastal areas, sending most of their earnings to their families at home. He argues that, because this is the most efficient form of wealth transfer from the rich to the poor areas, conditions for such workers should be liberalised. 'The gap in incomes between farmers and city people is [the] widest since 1949'