China's Top Leaders Pledge to Fight Poverty

China's leaders spent the Lunar New Year holiday with locals in the impoverished countryside, where growing discontent has spilled over into violent protests, and pledged Sunday to do more to improve living standards.

Chinese state television showed President Hu Jintao sharing a bowl of dumplings with a farmer and Premier Wen Jiabao asking an elderly women if her bed was warm enough.

Beijing's leaders regularly use the new year holiday to underline a policy direction. Last year, Hu spent the holiday — the most important in the Chinese calendar — with AIDS victims.

China's communist leadership has made tackling poverty in the countryside a key priority, as it acknowledges that three decades of economic and social reforms have left great swaths of the population behind.

Clashes between officials and villagers, angry over forced land seizures and inadequate compensation for farmland and redundancies, have been increasing. The government said there were 87,000 cases of public disorder last year, an increase of 6.6 percent from 2004.

China's CCTV showed Hu chatting with farmers and veterans of Mao Zedong's Red Army, in the former revolutionary stronghold of Yan'an, in northwest China.

Hu told Kang Haifa, a farmer, that the government's aim was to bring more wealth to the countryside so that everyday they could eat as well as they do during the New Year holiday, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Hu also met with Liu Tianyou, 90, a veteran of Mao's Long March, and pledged to do more for those who helped bring the Communist party to power, Xinhua said.

The Chinese premier used his two-day trip to east China's Shandong province to call for affordable health services for the rural population, most of whom struggle to get by on a few hundred dollars a year.

Wen gave money to a farmer whose wife has been sick and told other villagers to take better care of the family, Xinhua said.

In Wulidun village, Wen sat with Guo Xiulan, an 80-year-old pensioner, Xinhua said.

CCTV showed Wen lifting up the red and white blankets on Guo's bed to make sure they would keep her warm during the winter.

Wen saw in the New Year with workers at the Zhongyuan oil field in Shandong, where he urged them to drill more oil for the country, Xinhua said.

China celebrated the first day of the Lunar New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog, on Sunday.