03/24/2011, 00.00
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Willy Lam: A missed opportunity for Chinese Parliament

by Willy Lam
The annual National People's Congress was primarily concerned with "defending socio-political stability - and crushing any possible Chinese style jasmine revolution". The comment of the noted scholar on the Chinese government and many unresolved problems.

Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The well-known scholar Willy Lam defines the annual National People's Congress in Beijing in March, “a missed opportunity”. A step backwards in the reformist openings of recent months, with interventions dominated by concerns with maintaining stability and avoiding all possible unrest. Real debate was lacking as were all attempts to face the real problems of society,the causes of discontent and frequent social unrest. The article published below appeared in China Brief section on the site of the Jamestown Foundation.

Beijing’s efforts to uphold socio-political stability—and to crush a potential Chinese-style “Jasmine Revolution”—have dominated this year’s plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC). The Chinese parliament has approved a budget for wei-wen, an omnibus term that encompasses maintaining law and order, squashing dissent and keeping surveillance on the populace, which surpasses for the first time the expenditures of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Much of the initiatives for this year as well as for the 12th Five-Year Plan (12FYP) period of 2011 to 2015 have to do with pacifying disadvantaged social groupings through boosting their welfare entitlements and restructuring the economy. Remarkably absent are reforms in the political arena.

While it is well-known that China ’s public-security apparatus has expanded vastly since 2008, the “Year of the Olympics,” observers were astounded by the 624.4 billion yuan (.0 billion) wei-wen budget for this year. The increase represented a jump of 13.8 percent over that of 2010. In comparison, the PLA budget stood at 601.1 billion yuan (.5 billion), a year-on-year rise of 12.7 percent (Reuters, March 5; Ming Pao [ Hong Kong ] March 6). In his Government Work Report (hereafter Report) delivered on March 5, Premier Wen Jiabao asked government departments to “strengthen and perfect the public security system” and to “raise our ability in crisis management and withstanding [political] risks.” He also underscored the imperative of tightening control over the Internet and modernizing the People’s Armed Police (PAP), one of whose duties is tackling riots and disturbances. “We must bolster our ability in tackling emergency incidents, countering terrorism and upholding stability,” Wen told the close to 3,000 deputies at the Great Hall of the People (Xinhua News Agency, March 5; China News Service , March 5).

Wen’s proverbial “brandishing of the sword” is similar in nature to a series of wei-wen addresses given by President Hu Jintao and other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members since a series of “color revolutions” began sweeping Tunisia , Egypt , and Libya in mid-January. For example, PBSC member Zhou Yongkang, whose portfolio is law and order, pointed out in a national conference on “social management” that security forces must “put together a comprehensive and viable system to prevent [disturbances] and control social order, so that contradictions and disputes can be resolved at the embryonic stage” (Xinhua News Agency, February 20; People’s Daily, February 21). Zhou’s call to arms, made on February 20, coincided with the first “Jasmine Revolution” demonstration to hit China . Responding to anonymous messages on the Internet, several hundred mostly youthful protestors congregated on that day in 13 designated spots in as many cities that included Beijing , Shanghai , and Guangzhou . Since then, similar appeals for demonstrations were made on the Net for the following two Sundays. Owing to the massive deployment of police, however, the numbers of protestors dwindled markedly (New York Times, February 20; The Guardian, February 27; Ming Pao, March 7).

That the Hu Jintao leadership regards fighting the so-called Jasmine Revolution and allied attempts at undermining the CCP’s authority as a long-term struggle, however, is evidenced by a series of commentaries published by the conservative Beijing Daily and the Liberation Daily at the opening of the NPC. In a signed commentary, the Beijing Daily warned last Saturday against “people with ulterior motives in and out of China who want to bring chaos [associated with color revolutions] into China” through acts such as “holding illegal gatherings and attempting to fabricate incidents.” Similarly, the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily fingered anti-Chinese elements who were allegedly “confusing and poisoning people’s minds in an effort to stir up ‘street politics’ and plunging China into chaos” (Beijing Daily, March 5; Liberation Daily, March 6; China News Service , March 6).    

The corollary of the CCP’s apparent decision to re-introduce strong-armed, quasi-Maoist tactics to suppress dissent is that political liberalization has been firmly put on hold. Last year, Premier Wen surprised observers by repeatedly hoisting the flag of political reform. In a memorable trip to the Shenzhen special economic zone last September, Wen argued that “not only do we need to push forward reform of the economic structure, we must also push forward reform of the political structure.” The premier even repeated late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s well-known warning against the enemies of liberalization: “Without reform, there is only the road to perdition” (See “Premier Wen’s ‘Southern Tour’: Ideological Rifts in the CCP?” China Brief, September 10, 2010). While Wen made a seemingly pro forma mention of “the reform of the political structure” in this year’s Report, he dwelled mostly on the non-controversial agenda of “implementing scientific, democratic decision-making.” By contrast, in his 2010 Government Work Report, Wen waxed eloquent about “earnestly safeguarding the people’s democratic rights, particularly their electoral rights, the right to know, the right to participate [in politics], the right to expression, and the right to supervise [the government]” (People’s Daily, March 6; Apple Daily [ Hong Kong ], March 6).

While refusing to share power with the people, the CCP administration seems ready to significantly raise the level of social-welfare benefits. Highlights of the 12th FYP, which have been released so far include more generous public spending in areas ranging from housing to medical insurance. For example, 36 million government-built subsidized apartments will be constructed in the coming five years. The central government’s annual contribution to medical insurance in urban and rural areas will be increased from 120 yuan (.38) per person to 200 yuan (.46) per person. Spending on education will reach 4 percent of the GDP from this year onwards. The minimum wage, which shot up by 20.8 percent last year, will rise by at least 80 percent by 2015. Most significantly, Wen’s cabinet has promised that the income of urbanites and peasants alike will increase by a yearly rate of not less than 7 percent, which is the projected GDP growth rate during the entire FYP period (Xinhua News Agency, February 27; Sina.com, March 6; Ming Pao, March 7).  

The trickle-down dispensations by the central government, however, are unlikely to narrow the rich-poor gap, which is a major reason underpinning public discontent. The Gini Coefficient—a measurement of income inequality—hovers close to 0.5, which is a level deemed to be conducive to social disturbances (Huanqiu.com, February 17; Xinhua News Agency, February 25). According to the latest edition of the respected Hurun Report, the richest 70 of China ’s parliamentarians boast a combined wealth of 493.1 billion yuan (.1 billion). By contrast, the assets of the 70 most well-heeled members of the U.S. Congress add up to no more than .8 billion (Bloomberg, March 4; Chinareviewnews.com, March 5).  

More significantly, Wen and his colleagues have yet to come up with institutional measures to diffuse the masses’ malcontents. Take the hukou or residence permit system, which is responsible for the strict segregation of urban and rural residents since the mid-1950s. Despite the fact that some 200 million migrant workers have for the past two decades made invaluable contributions to China ’s “world factory,” they are still denied permanent residence status in the cities. Just prior to last year’s NPC session, 15 regional newspapers made international news by running a joint editorial calling upon Beijing to immediately scrap the unconstitutional hukou system. This unusual appeal was ignored by the authorities (Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2010; The Economist, May 6, 2010). In his Report last weekend, Wen made vague pledges that migrant workers would gradually be entitled to more welfare benefits hitherto reserved for urbanites. Yet no timetable has been set for the abolition of institutional discrimination against China ’s farmers ( China News Service , March 5; New Beijing Post, February 23).

Similarly, the CCP administration has failed to grasp the nettle regarding the perennial battle against corruption, which is deemed a prime factor behind social unrest. In his pre-NPC discussion with Chinese Netizens, Wen admitted that “inflation coupled with corruption is enough to arouse people’s discontent—and this could even create severe social problems” (People’s Daily, February 28; China News Service , February 28). “Strengthening the construction of a clean government and fighting graft,” however, was listed in the Report as the last of the ten major tasks for this year. “We must earnestly boost [cadres’] self-discipline in clean governance,” Wen said. The premier urged officials to “self-consciously accept supervision” by certain means including submitting regular reports to anti-graft agencies concerning their incomes, real-estate holdings, investments, as well as changes in the nationalities of their close kin. It is true that senior cadres had last year begun to file such reports to the CCP Central Commission for Disciplinary Commission. Yet despite calls for more transparency, data such as the personal assets of top officials are neither publicized nor subject to independent auditing (Xinhua News Agency, March 2; China Youth Daily, February 27).    

The conservative turn in Chinese politics is also poised to affect the nature of economic reform in the coming five years. This is despite the fact that, at least in theory, economic restructuring as envisaged in the outlines of the 12th FYP contains a host of reformist objectives. Thus, the target for GDP growth from 2011 to 2015 has been lowered to 7 percent so as to facilitate “qualitative,” not quantitative, economic expansion. More efforts will be made to replace exports with domestic consumption as a key locomotive of growth. Above all, the World Factory is set to morph into the Global Hub of Innovation. Yet much of Beijing ’s game plan for moving up the value and technological chain depends on governmental policies and outlays—not the endeavors of the private sector. For instance, government departments and state-held conglomerates are set to invest .5 trillion in seven key industrial areas: green technology; biotechnology; alternative energy; high-end equipment manufacturing; IT; advanced materials; and alternative-fuel vehicles. There will also be closer integration between civilian and military research and development (Xinhua News Agency [English], March 5; Reuters, February 1; BBC News, March 3). Just as in the socio-political arena, Beijing ’s industrial and technology strategies seem geared toward boosting the powers of the party-and-state apparatus rather than encouraging the creativity and initiative of individual citizens. As in other aspects of national life, economic pursuits must serve the overarching wei-wen imperative.



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