Premier promises increased spending to address wealth gap The central government would increase spending in rural areas to calm growing discontent from people left behind in the mainland's economic boom, Premier Wen Jiabao told a State Council meeting. 'Farmers' democratic rights should be protected to ensure they can enjoy material benefits,' according to a speech by Mr Wen released by Xinhua. 'For a long time, the economic development of our country has been unbalanced. Cities have advanced very quickly, but the countryside has stagnated,' Mr Wen said. 'First and foremost, government budgetary injections have to be aimed at the villages. 'Allocations to rural areas will be more than last year,' he said, without giving figures. Mr Wen said financial institutions would also have to restructure the lending systems for farmers. Rural credit co-operatives, which make up most farm loans, are undergoing a massive clean-up after years of embezzlement by corrupt local officials. According to official numbers, the total non-performing loans of these co-operatives nationwide fell from 514.7 billion yuan in 2003 to 385.1 billion yuan at the end of June last year, but only after intervention by Beijing. Mr Wen said illegal land acquisition - which is a source of social instability - must be prohibited to safeguard farmers' property rights. He also said migrant workers from the countryside had become crucial contributors to the economy and should be treated fairly. His remarks come ahead of next month's annual sessions of the National People's Congress, which was expected to spell out government expenditure for public services. But a critic said the speech did not go far enough to help peasants. Yu Jianrong , a leading expert on rural issues from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Rural Development, said: 'It's not very meaningful if a leader gives a speech without having a systematic overhaul in place. 'In many countries, there is a policy under the law to set aside a certain portion of the gross domestic product to support the agricultural sector through the local industries.' Dr Yu also said he did not expect the number of farmers' protests to subside this year. 'The protests won't subside just because the government spends more money in the rural areas because those are deep-rooted problems,' he said. Incidents of social unrest grew 6.6 per cent to more than 87,000 last year, with a majority of cases related to land grabs, labour disputes and environmental degradation, the Ministry of Public Security said this week. Mr Wen said public services in the countryside, including education, medical care and cultural services, had to be strengthened in the next five years. Education and medicines are said to be some of China's most profitable industries because operators charge exorbitant fees on an arbitrary basis. According a UN Development Programme report on China released last month, income inequality has doubled over the past 25 years since the implementation of the 'open door' policy by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping . A person living in a city earns an average of US$1,000 a year, compared to US$300 in the countryside.