BEIJING -- China's premier committed billions of dollars to improve conditions in the restive countryside while saying yesterday that economic growth would slow to 8 percent, a significant drop from last year and much lower than international projections.
In a key address to the annual session of the country's figurehead parliament, Wen Jiabao said new spending on schools, farm aid, healthcare, and infrastructure would produce a ''rapid and significant change in the overall appearance of the countryside."
''Building a new socialist countryside is a major historic task," Wen told 2,927 delegates from the National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People beside Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Beijing will budget an extra $5.2 billion to raise spending on rural areas by 15 percent this year, to $41.9 billion, Wen said.
China's vast countryside is home to 800 million of its 1.3 billion people, and many outside the cities have failed to share in the fruits of the booming economy. Government promises to spread prosperity have taken on special urgency amid mounting rural anger over chronic poverty, corruption and other problems.
Despite his pledges, Wen made no direct mention of the abuses that have sparked unrest, such as land seizures for factories and other projects, and complaints that farmers are underpaid.
A 15,000-member security force was deployed around the hall to block protests, and pedestrians were stopped and questioned. At least two men were detained, and college students who approached a foreign reporter to practice their English were ordered away by a policeman.
The premier promised ''fast, yet steady" economic development but said growth was expected to fall to 8 percent -- down from 9.9 percent last year and below a World Bank projection of 9.2 percent for 2006.
Wen did not say why growth would be lower, although China has in recent years sought to cool the economy to avoid inflation and other financial problems.
Wen said a key government priority will be increasing domestic consumption -- part of efforts to sustain growth while easing reliance on exports amid pressure from the United States and other trading partners to cut China's huge trade surpluses.
The budget also calls for a sharp increase in spending on science, in line with official plans to make China a world power in areas ranging from genetics and nuclear energy to medicine and computers.
The 2.5 million-member armed forces also received a 14.7 percent boost to $35.3 billion, maintaining double-digit increases of recent years.
The premier's report included no mention of political reform -- a taboo topic in a system where the ruling Communist Party rejects any challenge to its monopoly on power.
Wen spent more time than usual discussing improvements to healthcare, a source of rising discontent over high fees and lacking services for the rural poor.
''They've talked about these things before, but we've never seen so much attention to healthcare issues," said Zhong Lingtai, a hospital administrator. ''We may be looking at some real structural changes."