China's Xi says rural residents should get fairer deal

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's rural residents, generally looked down upon and discriminated against in the country's thriving cities, should get a fairer deal so they can share in the fruits of the booming economy, media on Friday cited President Xi Jinping as saying.

China aims for 60 percent of the population of almost 1.4 billion to be living in cities by 2020, turning millions of rural dwellers into consumers who could be a driving force for the world's second-largest economy.

Chinese leaders have pledged to loosen their grip on residence registration, or hukou, to try to remove obstacles to the urbanisation drive. Such registrations prevent migrant workers and their families from getting access to education and social welfare outside their home villages.

Speaking at a meeting of the Politburo, one of the Communist Party's elite ruling bodies, Xi said hukou reform should be speeded up and people given equal employment rights so they can live in equality in urban areas, including setting up businesses.

"We must ... give new impetus to rural development, and allow the vast majority of farmers to participate as equals in the process of reform and development so they too can enjoy its fruits," state news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

"(We must) protect the legal rights of farmers and guarantee equal employment rights with urban workers."

Rural services also needed to be improved to look after children left behind in villages, women and the elderly, Xi added. China could not achieve its aim of becoming a middle-income country if rural areas were ignored, he said.

Agriculture needed to be modernised too to guarantee food security, Xi said.

The Cabinet said last year it would ensure "orderly"migration of some 100 million rural workers into cities by 2020, supported by expanded social welfare and job opportunities, as part of plans to push its urbanisation programme.

The government is struggling to balance goals such as encouraging the migration of millions of former farmers into cities, while avoiding the slums and unemployment problems that have occurred in other countries experiencing similar migration.