President's trip to Hebei stresses party focus on rural development President Hu Jintao chose to celebrate New Year's Eve with poor farmers in a northern ethnic-minority county in a further show that rural development will top the government's agenda this year, according to Xinhua. On a chilly day in a county north of Chengde, Hebei province, where most residents belong to the Mongolian and Manchurian ethnic groups, Mr Hu was shown on national television chatting with villagers, checking drug prices at a clinic, and praising students and teachers at an elementary boarding school. In a symbolic move designed to showcase his support for the country's more than 800 million farmers - about two-thirds of the total population - Mr Hu was also shown using a pitchfork to feed grass to sheep at a farmhouse. Mr Hu was accompanied on Sunday's visit by Wang Gang, director of the General Office of the Communist Party's Central Committee, Hebei party chief Bai Keming and acting governor Guo Gengmao, Xinhua reported. Chinese leaders have made it a ritual to spend holidays such as New Year's Eve or the Mid-Autumn Festival with ordinary folk to demonstrate the Communist Party's ties to the grass roots. Previously, Premier Wen Jiabao has eaten dumplings in a coal mine with workers in Liaoning province on Lunar New Year's Eve. The mainland's propaganda machinery yesterday also trumpeted Mr Hu's other initiatives to care for the masses. Qiushi magazine - a party mouthpiece - ran a speech he made in October at a party conference on social harmony. Yesterday, the president returned to Beijing and presided over a tea party with other members of the Politburo Standing Committee and leaders of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body. According to a state television report last night, Mr Hu gave a speech to the CPPCC leaders repeating his policy initiatives for the coming year, including continuing the push for economic reforms, social harmony, peaceful exchanges with Taiwan, and support for Hong Kong and Macau. The tea party is also an annual ritual by Communist Party leaders to emphasise that the ruling party values 'suggestions' from CPPCC members, who are often ridiculed by foreign media as a decorative 'flower vase' in the mainland's political system. Absent from the tea party was Vice-Premier Huang Ju, who has been suffering from cancer. Mr Huang is often linked to the so-called 'Shanghai gang', whose members used to command considerable political influence during the reign of former president Jiang Zemin . Mr Huang was also absent from a New Year's Peking opera performance in Beijing on Saturday, indirectly confirming overseas media reports that he has returned to Shanghai to recuperate.