China on the quest for a new development model
by Bernardo Cervellera

The aim of a "harmonious society" and the reality of stark contrasts between cities and rural areas, of sky-high pollution rates, which are also down to enormous energy consumption and a legal system subject to the Party.


Rome (AsiaNews) – Around 1,300 delegates will gather on Sunday 5 March in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC). Presenting the façade of a democratic mechanism, the NPC reviews and approves the laws and policy lines thought out and studied by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

A key theme on this year's agenda is the approval and enactment of the eleventh five year programme (2006 – 1010), which aims to launch China in the third millennium. The central government, led by the president Hu Jintao and the premier Wen Jiabao, has already paved the way to improve the "quality" and "efficiency" of the Chinese economy, turning a new page to focus on a "scientific concept of development" and a "harmonious society". According to the leadership plan, these choices should lead to cutting back on economic inefficiency, to boosting research and to reducing social tensions.

A new economic model

More than two decades of rampant economic growth (with an annual GDP growth rate averaging 9%) have turned China into a giant on the global economic scene. But this progress has exacted a very steep price in terms of ecology and social imbalance.

According to the World Bank, the carelessness of the economy with regard to the environment has brought about profound damages, which could cost the country around 8 to 10% of the annual GDP in medical expenses to treat sick people, in damage to agriculture and to marine fauna. More than 60% of China's waters have been poisoned by toxic liquids, industrial waste, and chemical substances. Water shortage and climatic changes have proved fatal to agriculture in many areas of the country, destroyed by floods or drought. The state has enacted anti-pollution laws but the push for economic growth, the use of coal to meet energy needs and the negligence (or connivance) of local governments, have turned pollution into a national and international  problem: Korea, Japan and the United States have lamented the fact that toxic clouds produced in China have reached and polluted their skies too.

China's development model has proved to be inefficient, requiring enormous quantities of raw materials and masses of forced labour to exist. Alongside a GDP growth rate of little more than 9%, energy consumption in the past two years (2004 and 2005) has risen by 16%. China's oil imports in 2004 grew by 35% over the previous year, while in 2003, the increase was of 31.2%. The comparison with the economic growth rate leaves one speechless: in 2004, the increase of oil imports was of 369% the growth of the GDP (cfr. B. CERVELLERA, "Missione Cina", Ancora, Milano, 2006, p. 120). Experts estimate that for every GDP point, the quantity of energy spent by China is three times that of the United States and nine times that of Japan.

Chinese experts are worried about prospects for the use of resources: if China presses ahead with its current model of development, it risks exhausting or monopolizing global oil and mineral reserves within a short time.

To counter these problems, the upcoming NPC aims to introduce the "Green GDP" concept in its economic planning; this index could measure growth taking into account environmental impact and efficient use of energy.

A transition towards an economic model of "innovation" is also foreseen, financing scientific and technological research. So far, China has based its richness on a cheap labour force, becoming "the world's factory". At the NPC meeting, Wen Jiabao is looking to approve a plan to back research. So far, China has pumped 1.23% of its GDP into research and innovation, compared to 2.7% of the US and 3.3% of Japan.

Party experts say these moves should also reduce prevalent social tensions. Many revolts are in fact provoked by industrial pollution, by the seizure of land and homes to build industrial complexes. However, several problems remain, like health, education, the imbalance between cities and rural areas, corruption, and the gap between the rich and the poor.

The "new socialist campaign"

Up to the present day, China's great cities, the heart of economic development, represent an image of the third world: a modern, elegant centre and abandoned and poor suburbs. Some experts say even Beijing, the capital, could compare to a "European capital", surrounded by "African rural areas", with migrant workers who barely scrape together an annual income of 668 yuan (around 67 euros).

In a bid to keep migrants in their rural homes – where they do not earn enough and where their lands are confiscated – the government would like the NPC to approve more aid for education in rural areas in its new budget. Zhou Ji, Education Minister, said the government will increase the education vote from 2.79% to 4% of the GDP. Of this sum, 218.2 billion yuan (nearly 22 billion euros) will be pumped into financing the compulsory schooling system in rural areas, which so far has been based on taxes imposed on peasants. All these solutions are an expression of the plan for a "new socialist campaign" in a search to lessen the imbalance between cities and rural areas, and to develop the peasants' world.

However, the main sticking problem remains the corruption and avidity of village leaders and party secretaries, who use the instrument of taxation and expropriate taxes to enhance their own personal economic might. Last year, 120 government or party representatives were punished within four months; 76 of them were arrested and convicted of corruption; the government managed to recuperate 5 billion yuan (500 million euros). To put a stop to this source of unrest and revolts, the NPC is expected to approve funds of 1.75 billion yuan (around 175 million euros) to "educate" more than 19 million party cadres and to reinforce their presence on the ground.

The role of the law

The weakest link in China's development is the role of the law, which appears to be subject to the CCP. In rural areas, elections for village heads, and even for party secretaries, are held, but candidates are selected from the top and once elected, they cannot be removed. NPC representatives are also co-opted by the CCP. To make their voice heard, the population has only one means: petitions. But even this route is becoming ever more restricted. These days, in the lead-up to the NPC, thousands of people who went to Beijing to present their petitions to delegates were dragged far away from the city. At least 12,000 policemen are patrolling the streets to prevent assemblies and demonstrations.

According to Jerome Cohen of New York University's Law School, China's legal system is too weak and does not allow citizens, especially peasants, to make their voice heard. To the present day, hundreds of thousands of people turn to the courts for justice, but only a tiny percentage are heard. Prof. Cohen, who is currently in Shanghai, said although there are many law projects, their implementation is reined in by the Party leadership's fear of seeing its power erode all the more.

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