Wages and production have increased, but social instability remains a threat Beaming in his silk outfit, peanut farmer Qi Shuangshan is a stark contrast to the stereotype of suffering mainland farmers. The 35-year-old ethnic Mongolian lives in Bangjieta village, just two hours' drive from Fuxin, Liaoning province, which saw more than 200 miners die in an explosion last month. He enjoys a life that would be the envy of residents of the gloomy industrial city. Mr Qi said he no longer desired city work as it was much better to farm and raise animals at home after the government scrapped its agricultural tax on farmers last year. 'I paid more than 100 yuan per family member in tax in 2003. Now we don't have to pay. It was not a lot of money, but it was still a burden. We also have a grain subsidy. It is only about 20 yuan, but it is better than nothing.' He now earns almost 10,000 yuan a year farming his .65-hectare plot of land and raising pigs and cattle. Although more than half the money he earns is spent on fertiliser and seeds, Mr Qi still fares much better than the many unemployed people of his age in Fuxin, who rely on their parents' pension payments for support. Mr Qi said he worked in the construction industry in 2001 and 2002 for 4,000 to 5,000 yuan a year after facing mounting pressure to pay a variety of levies and fees to local officials in the late 1990s. Now he says he would rather stay at home to look after his animals because farmers have better lives than construction workers. Levies are no longer the most pressing problem in rural areas, although critics question why it took the government so many years to heed the advice of experts and put a stop to the arbitrary fees. The government scrapped the agricultural tax in Heilongjiang and Jilin last year and reduced the tax rate in another 11 grain production areas. Officials say most provinces will see it scrapped this year. Cao Jinqing , author of China at the Bank of the Yellow River, which examined the problems in the countryside, said farmers were more content with their lives now than in the late 1990s. Increasing grain output and the lighter financial burden on farmers will be a theme of the government's National People's Congress publicity campaign this year. The leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao is eager to score political credit for its governance in the past two years and draw attention away from more pressing issues such as the increasing income gap and rising social discontent. One achievement the propaganda apparatus will trumpet is last year's recovery of grain output - although many doubt the gradual rebound will last. According to a speech by Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu at the central rural work conference released late last month, last year's grain production amounted to 469 million tonnes, compared with an original target of 455 million tonnes. The increase of 38.75 million tonnes from 2003 was the largest since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Average farmer income rose 6.8 per cent, or 314 yuan, to 2,936 yuan a year, the largest increase since 1997. But government officials and scholars doubt whether the momentum will be maintained this year because a spike in grain prices in 2003 - largely the result of market speculation - was unlikely to be repeated now the market was healthier. The government is now locked in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is hoping urbanisation can accelerate so that the number of farmers can be reduced. On the other, it is hoping to preserve farmland and achieve economies of scale to increase the competitiveness of agricultural produce. Despite measures introduced by the government to protect farmland, rapid urbanisation has seen more farmers stripped of their land without proper compensation because rural land is owned by collectives - such as village committees - instead of individuals. The grievances of landless farmers have overtaken taxes to become the trickiest question faced by rural policymakers, who are concerned about the possibility of rural insurgencies - particularly after riots in the provinces of Henan and Sichuan last year. These showed even trivial arguments among villagers could spark riots, with disgruntled farmers taking the opportunity to vent their discontent. Improving the livelihood of farmers is one way for the government to assuage rural discontent and maintain stability in the countryside. Mr Hui quoted Premier Wen as saying the mainland would review its policy of sacrificing rural interests to support the cities and start channelling more funds from the cities to pay for infrastructure, medical services and education in rural areas. However, it is only a beginning, and even Mr Hui admitted that the income gap between rural and urban areas remained huge.