The title is dry — the “Communist Party of China Central Committee Proposal Regarding the Formulation of the 11th Five-Year Program for National Economic and Social Development” — but its contents are very important. The document is an outline of how China can tackle the pressing problems created by its breakneck growth. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the government may depend on its contents: The strains within Chinese society are growing and may be approaching a breaking point.
The Chinese leadership had two objectives at last week’s meeting of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 16th Central Committee. The first was to provide an unblinkered assessment of the problems China faces. That list is long and growing. The country has enjoyed blistering growth — sometimes topping 9 percent over the last decade — but this growth has been uneven.
A recent Chinese government study revealed that the most affluent fifth of the country earns 50 percent of total income, while the bottom fifth claims only 4.7 percent. Urban residents on average earn nearly three times what rural dwellers make. Factor in noneconomic benefits that flow from city life — such as access to education and health care — and the disparities are some of the largest in the world.
But Chinese have much more to complain about than just wage disparities (although they are severe). In addition, there is the psychological dislocation and actual financial harm done by the loss of pensions, job security and the “iron rice bowl.” There is fear that banks are insolvent. Environmental degradation is widespread and getting worse. Courts and administrative procedures are arbitrary, and corruption is a blight on the party and society.
There is no room for protest: There is little talk of political reform and the government has been cracking down on the Internet and the media, leaving little opportunity for ordinary Chinese to vent their frustrations. Little wonder, then, that the government recorded nearly 75,000 major protests nationwide last year, up from 58,000 the year before and 10,000 in 1994.
Meanwhile, China’s successes and a trade surplus in excess of $100 billion have created a backlash among its trading partners. The row over textiles is just the first of what promises to be many such disputes. Other producers are demanding restraints on Chinese exports, and that would slow growth in the most vibrant sector of the economy. Growth has created problems for China, but the solution is not to eliminate growth; rather it is to better spread the benefits from it. Meeting that challenge is the first order of business for the Hu Jintao government.
Its second key task is consolidating power under Mr. Hu. He has been in office for four years now and he inherited a leadership with many allies of his predecessor, Mr. Jiang Zemin. The intervening period has seen the new president move slowly but indelibly to put his stamp on the government and its policy. This five-year plan, the first to be written by his administration, is also intended to show how his government differs from that of Mr. Jiang.
Thus, the response to the list of problems — and indeed, even acknowledging the existence of those concerns — is one sign of how Mr. Hu is distinguishing his leadership. Echoing the strategy he adopted when he took office, the new document stresses “building a harmonious socialist society” to remedy the inequalities that have emerged in Chinese society. In a sharp contrast to the spotlight on entrepreneurship and the capitalist half of the “social market economy” that occurred during Mr. Jiang’s term, Mr. Hu has continually underlined his concern for ordinary Chinese. The five-year program outlined at the plenary will focus on more sustainable development, stronger environmental protection, health and education.
The actual details of the new five-year program — and, in another reform, it is no longer a “plan” — have not yet been revealed. A statement released after the plenary says that China aims to double its 2000 gross domestic product by 2010. That is in keeping with political priorities to date. Ensuring that farmers make more money and that disadvantaged groups in the cities receive more benefits from China’s overall development will be the measure of the success Mr. Hu has in realizing his “harmonious society.” Another measure is much more easily seen: the amount of unrest and public protest in China. That number will be as important to the Chinese leadership as the GDP growth figures.
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