At a nationally televised press conference held at the end of last year's National People's Congress meeting, Premier Zhu Rongji highlighted income disparity as a pressing problem. One year on, bridging the gap between the rich and the poor has remained Mr Zhu's top concern. The sense of urgency that he attaches to the problem is reflected by its extensive treatment in his report to the NPC this year. The Premier stressed the need to increase the income of the lowest-income group by doing whatever it would take to boost farmers' pay and lower their burden, and to ensure living allowances for redundant workers and pensions for retirees would be fully paid. A Chinese proverb says poverty is not so much of a problem as inequitable distribution. In the Maoist days of egalitarianism, everybody was poor and keeping up with one's peers was not an issue. But 24 years after Deng Xiaoping announced in 1978 that it was all right for some people to get rich first, millions of Chinese have indeed got rich. The current leadership knows that unless the problem of income disparity is addressed, instability could creep in. In this connection, Mr Zhu's strident criticism of corruption and wasteful spending by officials - another perennial subject in the Premier's reports - was instructive. He noted that some localities which had problems paying staff salaries on time still tried to start dubious construction against the rules. Others lavished money on flashy 'image engineering' projects, celebrations and sumptuous receptions. Mr Zhu and the leaders know that a combination of official corruption and worsening disparity of wealth could spell trouble. In 1989, popular discontent over official speculation and profiteering was one of the underlying causes of the student-led democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. For as long as the Chinese economy continues to grow, delivering a better life to everyone, a lid can be kept on discontent. But the worry is China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, though beneficial to the country in the long run, will cause problems in the short term. Experience in other countries has shown that as domestic industries are forced to slim down under the pressure of foreign competition, xenophobia arises, fuelling anti-government sentiments. Mindful of such a danger, the leadership has embarked on a series of measures to rally all levels of government to gear up for WTO-induced changes. Mr Zhu's report shows China is heading in the right direction, but the road ahead is fraught.