BEIJING — Premier Wen Jiabao told a visiting Japanese delegation Sunday that Japanese companies operating in China should address workers' unhappiness over low wages that he says led to labor disputes this year.
Wen's comment comes after Japanese Foreign Miniter Katsuya Okada called for "transparent policies" governing workers in China, saying the labor disputes that halted work at dozens of factories were troubling to Japanese companies.
Okada brought up the issue at a high-level economic meeting between China and Japan – the world's second and third largest economies – held in Beijing to discuss ways to recover from the economic crisis and foster regional cooperation. Wen met the Japanese delegation on Sunday.
"Labor disputes are occuring at some foreign companies, where there is a problem of relatively low wages. We would like (Japan) to address this issue," Wen told Japanese officials, according to a news release by Japan's foreign ministry.
Okada said Saturday that the sides discussed ensuring transparent policies during talks on how to improve the business environment in China. "As to the recent frequent labor dispute issue, the Japanese side expressed willingness to further strengthen discussion."
The widespread strikes were rare for China but the government permitted them, apparently trying to put more money in workers' pockets as part of efforts to boost consumer spending.
The Chinese delegation at the meeting said the strikes were to be expected because wages had been frozen for two years to help companies ride out the economic crisis, Japan Foreign Ministry spokesman Satoru Sato told reporters at a briefing late Saturday.
The Japanese were "not so satisfied with this explanation, we still think this is very important to Japanese companies operating here," he said.
They also urged China to ease export controls on rare metals used in computers, hybrid electric cars and other high-tech products.
"These limitations are affecting the global production chain," Sato said.
China would not stop exporting rare earth, but the tightened restrictions were necessary to address overdevelopment and smuggling problems, Wen said.
Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who led the Chinese delegation, said the economies of the two counties are interdependent and China has "huge market potential."
"The economies of both countries highly rely on each other. Economic and trade cooperation have been improved in a firm manner. Bilateral trade has recovered rapidly and has exceeded levels from before the financial crisis," Wang said.
The meeting came after government statistics released earlier this month showed that China had surpassed Japan as the world's second-biggest economy after three decades of blistering growth that puts overtaking the U.S. in reach within 10 years.
Japan is still far richer per person, but the news is more proof of the arrival of China, with 10 times Japan's population, as a force that is altering the global balance of commercial, political and military power.
This was the third high-level economic dialogue between the two sides, following talks in June last year in Tokyo and a first round in December 2007 in Beijing.
Discussion topics on Saturday also included cooperation in high-end manufacturing, energy conservation, environmental protection, food safety and opposition to protectionism, Wang said.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report from Tokyo.