Beijing (AsiaNews) - About 5,000 delegates have come to the capital to celebrate the annual ritual of democracy. 2,000 yesterday began their meeting of the political advisory conference, with the task of suggesting steps and policies for the government, to respond to the needs of the people.
Another 3,000 representatives will begin, on March 5, the meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), the Chinese parliament, to evaluate government policies and discuss and approve laws for the nation. Both bodies, which are meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, are seen as rubber-stamp assemblies that will approve everything that the government and the politburo of the Chinese communist party have decided beforehand. The advisory conference has a purely consultative role, and can only give suggestions, but the NPC has power of supervision over government policy. And yet, for over 20 years, it has done nothing but approve the guidelines drawn up by the party.
The population of Beijing is ignorant of everything being prepared and discussed behind closed doors. It is known that these leaders have come to the city only because security has been stepped up in recent days. There are hundreds of thousands of policemen, security guards, and soldiers, and almost a million volunteers watching every corner of the city, bus stop, and crowd to prevent demonstrations that might disturb public order. In these days in the sky over Beijing, for a radius of 200 kilometres above Tiananmen, there is a prohibition on private airplanes, gliders, and paragliders, to avoid "attacks" from the air.
To increase the seclusion of the delegates and their separation from the population, the government's website invites all Chinese citizens to send their complaints and suggestions through e-mail, but prohibits any attempt to present petitions in person to the representatives. Cai Zhengrong, of Shanghai, tried to come to Beijing to ask for justice: his house was demolished to build luxurious apartments, and he has received no compensation. He intended to present a petition to the government, but the police stopped him, interrogated him, and drove him out of the city.
In a leap forward in openness and public image - partly in preparation for the Olympics - this year journalists will be granted at least 19 official press conferences.
Until now, the only thing certain has been that the NPC will approve all of the changes at the level of leadership, which mark the sure grip on power of president Hu Jintao and the sidelining of the so-called "Shanghai clique", led by his predecessor Jiang Zemin. After the 17th congress of the Chinese communist party, last October Hu succeeded in placing his loyal followers as party secretaries in more than half of China's 31 provinces. It is noteworthy that the opening ceremony for the advisory conference was not attended by Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, both leaders of the "third generation".
To respond to the demands of "scientific development", a principle dear to Hu, and to organise the bureaucratic structures, there are rumours that the government will present a plan for the creation of a number of super-ministries. In China, the state council has no fewer than 28 departments, often with excessively overlapping responsibilities, compared with 12 in Japan, 15 in the United States, and 17 in Great Britain.
Among the possible super-ministries, there will be a new ministry of industry, which will have influence over defence, state monopolies, and the development abroad of important industrial sectors connected to the production of iron, steel, and nonferrous materials.
A new ministry of transportation will also embrace the ministries of communications, aviation, and the post office (but not that of the railroads, weakened by the collapse of services caused by the heavy snowfall in recent months).
In all probability, a new health ministry will be created, which will also include supervision of the safety of foods and medicines, following the international scandal of contaminated products that cost the life of former minister Zheng Xiaoyu. It is also expected that the SEPA, the office for monitoring the environment, which until now has been without any power, will become a real and proper ministry, with a budget, more personnel, and possibly more power to oppose the ecological disaster affecting the country's air and water.
Another step, which is more certain, is the increase of the budget for military spending. This morning the spokesman of the NPC, Jiang Enzhu, announced that the government is considering a 17.6% increase in military spending, bringing the total to 417,769 billion yuan (about 42 billion euros). Jiang said that this increase will be used to raise pay for personnel and improve the training for officials. He also noted that, in spite of the fact that there has been a steady increase in military spending in these years (last year the increase was 17.8%), China continues along a "peaceful path", and will use force only in self-defence. According to military experts, the actual figures of Chinese military spending are about three times higher than the stated numbers.
Jiang's statement comes a few days after an explicit request for an increase of the army's budget. Last February 26, the newspaper "Army of Liberation" warned of the possibly serious consequences if there were not an increase in defence spending. According to the publication, in recent years (it refers to the 1980's and 1990's) defence spending has been too low. "When the economic conditions improve", the newspaper says, "these shortfalls in defence must be corrected. Otherwise, there will be serious consequences".
But among the most controversial topics will be new laws on workers' rights. Since January 1, new laws have been in effect in China to regulate work hours, employment after temporary contracts lasting two years, pension agreements, and severance pay. The laws are a harsh test for many members of the Chinese communist party and their primitive capitalism, because they are seeing labour costs rise. According to some representatives, the new laws serve only to "protect the lazy".