The 3,000 delegates to the People’s National Congress are discussing Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech, focusing on the hopes it raised but also on the pessimism that surrounds it.
Mr Wen pledged money for education and farmers and loudly complained about environmental pollution and corruption in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), demanding greater resolve . . . but failing to say how to turn promises into actions.
1) Wen promised to limit economic growth at 8 per cent. He had made the same promise two years ago, but the economy grew by more than 10 per cent. The net effect is that there is too much investment, overproduction, excessive exposure of banks and greater speculation in the financial and real estate sectors. Since economic planning is the government’s responsibility, its actions (and inactions) are to blame for an overheated economy.
2) In a gesture of generosity, Wen said that the government was going to invest 68 billion yuan in education (up by 41.7 per cent over the last budget) and almost 32 billion in health care (up 86.8 per cent). Many delegates are however wondering how the money will get to the countryside, where some students study in schools that still use candles for lighting, and mountain areas. Other delegates are critical that financial aid to higher education will go to only six institutions directly under the Education Ministry, leaving other universities high and dry. As for investment in health care, it is important to remember that back in 1993 Beijing had pledged to spend 4 per cent of the budget in the health field without much success.
3) Premier Wen also vowed to reduce the gap between haves and have-nots by providing assistance to farmers and setting up an insurance programme for them. Government circles are in fact concerned that great poverty might lead to greater social unrest. Already last year Wen had launched a “new socialist countryside” initiative but 12 months later he cannot show much for it. Whilst it is true that in 2006 the number of incidents of social unrest dropped by a third from a record 87,000 cases in 2005, it is equally true that last year repression was even greater, including the use of lethal force to stomp revolts and arrest farmers and the lawyers defending their rights. What is also surprising is that the poverty line in China is set at 683 yuan (US$ 82 or € 68) per year. The world average is around US$ 2 per day or 730 per year. With such ridiculous figures China’s government can claim that only 21 million people are living below the poverty line. By contrast, according to World Bank estimates that number should be 365 million. How can any government programme be effective with such unreliable data.
4) And what can one say about promises to reduce pollution! Wen Jiabao launched a campaign in favour of the environment last year in which he even pledged to shut down plants that polluted. Did something happen? No.
5) Related to this system of unrestrained growth, money that does not get to where it is supposed to go, land seized from farmers, and environmental cover-ups is Party corruption. Every year tens of thousands of Party members are expelled and sentenced. This year Shanghai’s Party leader Chen Liangyu and his cronies got the axe for embezzling billions from a pension fund. As he has done for years, Wen reiterated the Party’s commitment to fight corruption. As part of this, every Party office received a copy of Confucius’ moral teaching. Yet it is plain to see that the CCP has not lived up to its own rules (which call on members to be first in enduring difficulties and last in enjoying comfort). Blaming one group or another, or the Cultural Revolution, has prevented an objective assessment of the one issue China’s must deal with, namely how to separate the Party and the government from the economy and become open to a truly liberal society. An interesting suggestion was recently formulated by Shan Shaojie, a philosophy professor at Renmin University. In his opinion the Party’s ethical problems exist because it claims spiritual and governmental powers. Instead, it would be preferable if spiritual authority and executive power were separate. For Shan spiritual authority should be left to religions, not the Party. All this is true on condition that religions are really free, including free to criticise Party members, perhaps even by means of a free press, i.e. areas in which China still lags behind.