03/03/2007, 00.00

NPC: the wounds of a “harmonious society” deprived of democracy

by Bernardo Cervellera
At the National People’s Congress that opens on 5 March, the leadership plans to fight injustice, pollution and poverty. But the monopoly of power must remain in the hands of the party.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Everything is ready for the National People’s Congress (NPC) that opens its annual session on 5 March. This year it will be 12 days long. The sham parliament of China, which has no real power but enacts, verifies and officially rubber-stamps the laws and economic policies laid down by the Chinese Community Party (CCP). The NPC gathers nearly 3,000 delegates from each province every year. Meetings are held in the Great Hall of the People, west of Tiananmen Square. The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference is held simultaneously to be available to the NPC for consultation and advice.

This year, the project of a “harmonious society” will be under the spotlight. This was launched some time ago by President Hu Jintao to proclaim the journey towards development that is balanced between rich and poor, cities and rural areas, industries and ecology. The “harmonious society” is a dream describing the positive antithesis of the tragic situation prevalent in China after 20 years of economic reforms, anarchic development and the NPC monopoly over power.

The situation has become glaringly obvious: the centres of big cities are crammed with wealth while the suburbs exude misery; cities draw foreign investment while tens of millions of peasants escape from rural areas; the country that has always preached Taoist harmony with nature has become the most polluted and polluting country in the world. An unholy alliance between local businessmen, foreigners and party members is to blame for these awful conditions. Their backs covered thanks to their firm grip on power, party members have transformed the Stalinist state of Mao’s making into a sort of Latin American dictatorship with an extremely wealthy oligarchy capable of all kinds of abuse and a heaving army of poor people, calculated by the World Bank to amount to 365 million people (nearly one-fourth of the population). The abyss between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the voiceless, has over the years lead to the outbreak of social tensions which, in the words of the leadership itself, have become “the most dangerous social destabilizing factor of the country”. This explains why the leadership is trying in all possible ways to distance itself from the frenzied economy, preaching sobriety, justice and solidarity. But there is no lack of party members calling for more use of armed force to quell ever growing protests.

Private property

One of the most anticipated moves at the NPC this year, in the wake of a report by Premier Wen Jiabao, is the enactment of a law on private property that has been put off for three years, ever since the national constitution was changed to uphold its “inviolable” nature. This safeguard has become an urgent need if internal order is to be maintained. In the cities, prey to reconstruction for the Olympics, and in rural areas, businessmen and CCP secretaries are seizing land and demolishing homes, without giving any compensation or paying damages. Peasants and other individuals turn to the courts but the lack of specific laws and connivance between judges and local governments often leave victims powerless to seek redress. In recent years, dozens of people whose homes have been seized have sought to commit suicide. Some even set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. But the problem is more serious still in rural areas, where entire villages have had their land expropriated for the construction of new factories, electricity power stations and luxury homes. This has generated violent clashes between police and residents with arrests and killings in Guangdong, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Hebei. Chen Xiwen, vice-minister of the Central Office on Financial and Economic Affairs, said: “Disputes about possession of land are the cause of more than 50% of all social protests”.

Also in the pipeline is a taxation law that does away with some tax exemptions for foreign investors, making taxes they pay equal to those paid by local industrialists. So far, firms with foreign capital have been paying 15% of their income while local ones pay 30%. The new law establishes that all should pay 25%. Analysts believe the law will rein in the spread of new firms and the consequent expropriation of lands. But according to Chinese economists, the increase will not block investments from abroad. China still offers many advantages like infrastructures, cheap labour and a big market.

Ecology and farmers

But the NPC must also tackle another two failures: ecology and agriculture. According to data of the World Bank, the rapidly growing economy has caused severe damage to the environment that is worth between 8 to 10% of the annual GDP in terms of medical costs incurred in treating the sick and damage to agriculture and to marine fauna. More than 60% of China’s waters have now been polluted by toxic liquids, industrial waste and chemical substances. Water shortage and climatic changes have dealt a fatal blow to agriculture in many areas of the country, which have been destroyed by floods or drought. The state has enacted anti-pollution laws but the problem has been fuelled by the push towards economic growth, the use of coal to meet energy needs and the carelessness of local governments. At least 500,000 Chinese people die every year due to air pollution. Last year, Premier Wen Jiabao introduced the “Green GDP” to calculate the rate of economic growth after deducting costs caused by environmental pollution, wastage of resources and social costs like health and public safety. But no one abides by regulations.

A sense of failure weighs heavy in rural areas. Last year, Wen launched a “new socialist campaign” with investments of more than 33 billion euros over five years to better the conditions of 800 million peasants. These investments should also serve to improve education and health services for peasant families. But according to testimonies gathered by AsiaNews, around 80% of children of peasants do not go to school because this would mean extra unaffordable expenses. What’s more, most people cannot go to hospital for treatment because they cannot afford to pay the expenses of hospitalization and drugs. Around 90% of Chinese people say this difference between the cities and countryside, between rich and poor, is China’s most burning problem.

In the face of these huge tasks, the leadership has so far focused on just two weapons: it decreed an increase in wages for migrant workers to mitigate poverty and it decided to launch a campaign against corruption that targets party members who abuse their power to the detriment of the people. Some believe that this struggle is aimed above all at eliminating the enemies of Hu Jintao, concentrated especially in the stronghold of Shanghai, the capital of the economic miracle.

But everything remains in the hands of the party. To those who call for more democracy as a weapon to fight corruption, Wen Jiabao replied that the country was still in the first stage of the socialist journey and that “at least 100 years” were necessary before democracy could be considered. Another tool to fight abuse is the media. But only recently, the Propaganda Ministry laid down 20 topics that are off limits for the press. These include the struggle against corruption, human rights and economic inequality. The bottom line is that to build a “harmonious society”, everyone should keep quiet and only the party leadership is allowed to act.

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