16pc of mainlanders are still living under the poverty line despite massive drive to increase affluence, forum told The income gap between the affluent east coast and the mainland's poorer central and western regions is widening at an ever-faster pace, a central government official has warned. 'In 1990, the average income of residents in the eastern region was 2.1 times that of those living in the west,' said Gao Guangsheng, deputy director of regional economics with the National Development and Reform Commission. 'The gap widened to 2.8 times in 2000, and hit 3.24 times in 2003.' The imbalance in economic development among the regions had also accelerated, he told an international forum on urban development in Beijing yesterday. Mr Gao said that in terms of relative development, the east was rated 58.7 in 1990 and had risen to 60.5, whereas the central region had fallen from 27.5 to 26.3 and the west had declined from 13.8 to 13.2. Last year, Premier Wen Jiabao promised to lift 30 million mainlanders out of extreme poverty within 10 years. In this year's budget, the government earmarked 15 billion yuan to help fight poverty in rural regions. But economists cautioned that the government's efforts to tackle poverty faced more difficulties than in the past. Since Beijing launched its economic reforms and opening-up policies in 1978, it has lifted about 300 million people out of poverty, which it defines as those with 'inadequate' food and clothing, and earning less than 625 yuan a year. This is significantly lower than the US$1 a day United Nation's standard for 'absolute poverty'. According to its own criteria, the mainland still has nearly 30 million rural residents lacking adequate food and clothing and a further 20 million urban dwellers whose income is lower than the minimum standard. Li Shantong, an economist with the State Council's Development Research Centre, said the government estimates failed to account for many mainlanders living in extreme poverty. 'If we use the United Nations standard ... about 16 per cent of Chinese are still living under the poverty line,' said Ms Li, director of the centre's Development Strategy and Regional Economy Research Department. However, Mr Gao said there were favourable factors that would help Beijing achieve its goals. He cited the speeding up of globalisation and the mainland's economic integration with the outside world, advances in developing a market economy and improved infrastructure resulting from 21/2 decades of economic growth. Nobel laureate James Mirrlees of Cambridge University urged the central government to invest more in education in poor regions as way to lift people out poverty. 'It is very important for the government to increase expenditure on education in rural areas,' Professor Mirrlees told the forum, adding that only education could promote productivity.