Beijing (AFP) March 13, 2011
For years, Wang Yulan and her husband drove their three-wheeled vehicle to an outdoor market near Beijing to sell broccoli, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes grown on their small plot of land.
Now, thanks to the web, they don't even have to leave their living room.
Two years ago the couple bought a computer and joined a growing number of Chinese farmers selling their produce online, giving them access to customers around the country and boosting their meagre income.
"A broad market is opened once you get on the computer," Wang, 55, told AFP as she logged on to agricultural trading website aptc.cn with the help of her niece.
"The Internet is convenient. The customers first place an order, we prepare the items, and they then send a van to pick them up."
Since Wang and her husband Liu Shujin, 66, started trading their vegetables online, the couple's income has more than doubled to between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan ($3,000-4,500) a year and life has become easier.
"We've stopped going out to sell vegetables and just stay at home," said Wang, who has suffered from a debilitating knee problem for 30 years.
The plight of China's millions of farmers, whose incomes are well below those of urban residents, has been high on the agenda of the country's annual session of parliament, which ends Monday.
Top leaders, worried about the growing rich-poor gap and its potential to spark social unrest, have vowed to boost development in rural areas and farmers' earnings.
Average rural incomes reached 5,919 yuan a year in 2010 compared with urban incomes of nearly 20,000 yuan, according to official statistics.
"We will focus on increasing the basic incomes of low-income people in both urban and rural areas," Premier Wen Jiabao said on March 5 in his speech to open the parliamentary session.
In 2006, state-owned China Mobile launched Nongxintong, or Farmers' Information Service, which provides timely market prices, weather forecasts and government policy via mobile text messages, a phone hotline and the web.
The service also allows farmers, like Yang He in the eastern province of Anhui, to advertise their products online.
"It is cheap -- it only costs a few yuan a month," Yang, who grows flowers, told AFP.
"I just need to send a message to the China Mobile website in Anhui, and then the message will be posted to the supply and demand board. If people see my message, they will contact me."
Nongxintong project manager Liu Jing said the "convenient and cheap" service, which costs farmers as little as two yuan (30 cents) a month, had three million subscribers in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing alone.
He did not have a nationwide figure.
"We want the service to be affordable, successful and beneficial to the farmers," Liu told AFP.
Last month, the commerce ministry signed an agreement with the Agricultural Bank of China and China Mobile to "jointly develop information infrastructure for rural commerce", the ministry said in a statement sent to AFP.
As farmers struggle to make ends meet, Internet and mobile phone technology can help them reach markets where their goods are in high demand, analysts say.
"If they (the government) can get more information disseminated, the market will operate more efficiently and that can help relieve inflationary pressures," Ren Xianfang, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, told AFP.
Without this information, "farmers don't know where to supply their goods", she said.
Wang, her face weathered from years tilling their 0.3-hectare (0.7-acre) plot of land, said: "Before, it was hard to sell vegetables. If we couldn't sell them all they would go rotten and we would have to throw them out."
Despite rising incomes, farmers still face an uncertain future, with poor access to healthcare services and land grabs on the rise as developers seek to cash in on the nation's property boom.
Wang said the lease on their land expires in 2013 and she is worried the government will not renew the contract, which they have had for the past 12 years.
"We are really afraid -- if we don't have our land, what do we do? We have no way to live," said Wang, whose 25-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is at home because the family cannot afford treatment for her.
Stability-obsessed leaders, aware of the potential for land disputes and other grievances to spark trouble, have sought to calm farmers' fears.
"We need to... genuinely protect their legitimate rights and interest concerning land they contract to work and the land on which their homes sit," Wen said in his "state of the nation" speech.
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