The world has watched China’s rise with awe and trepidation. Yet, the focus on how China will use its new power and influence has obscured the many problems the country faces as it continues to develop. Good Marxists that they are, Chinese leaders have long fretted over the contradictions within their society. But those tensions have become even more acute as the country continues its breakneck economic growth.
The recent session of China’s National People’s Congress focused squarely on those concerns and approved the 11th five-year Development Program to deal with them. The plan is well intentioned, but its eventual success depends on one factor that the government is not ready to address: the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
In the past five years, the Chinese economy has grown 9.5 percent per year on average. Last year, the country registered 9.9 percent growth and per capita gross domestic product topped $1,700. That remarkable growth has spurred China’s re-emergence, put it at the heart of the global economy, made it a force to be reckoned with in regional and global councils, and fueled a military modernization program that has neighboring countries concerned about Beijing’s intentions.
China is richer than at any other time in its history, but that wealth has not been shared equally. Most of the benefits have flowed to urban dwellers, leaving the 800 million residents of the countryside — two-thirds of China’s population — angry and resentful because they have not shared in the largess, or worse, have been exploited to achieve it. They earn about $400 a year, a quarter of the national per capita GDP. Their anger has been manifested by a rising number of incidents of public disorder. The government admits that there were 87,000 such incidents last year, a 6.6 percent increase over the year before. They have been triggered by illegal land seizures, pollution and other perceived slights. A good number have turned violent.
The Chinese leadership understands these disparities are a cancer within their country. Thus the newest Development Plan focuses on rural development and on ways to better distribute China’s new wealth. It aims at 8 percent growth for 2006, and a slightly slower 7.5 percent annual growth up to 2010. Instead of the huge infrastructure projects of the past that targeted cities, the new plan focuses on rural needs: roads, schools, health care, drinking water, methane facilities, power grids and telecommunications.
In his press conference after the NPC, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao underscored concern about the divide in China. The problems of agriculture, the countryside and farmers are fundamental ones bearing on the core interests of China’s modernization drive. He promised to respect the rights of farmers, and pledged that rural children would receive the free nine-year compulsory education that urban children get.
The new plan also calls for slower economic growth and greater energy efficiency. Both moves are designed to ease up on the countryside by reducing pollutants and the pressure to extract more resources. More efficient, sustainable development will also make it easier to establish businesses in rural areas, providing another source of income for the countryside.
As always, planning is the easy part. Chinese leaders have recognized the dangers of high-speed growth for over a decade and have regularly tried to apply the brakes, usually with little success. There is little indication that this time the results will be any different.
Moreover, the leadership is not willing to embrace fundamental legal reform in the countryside. Farmers still cannot own their own land, and the Development Plan pointedly refuses to take steps to better protect private property rights. Without basic rights to property, farmers will remain subject to the caprice of local officials, and the causes of much of the unrest in rural areas will continue.
The truth is that even granting property rights is no panacea in a one-party state. Without a system of checks and balances, such as an independent judiciary, there can be no protection for the weakest in society. It should come as no surprise, then, that a study of China’s richest citizens reportedly discovered that 90 percent of them were related to senior government or Communist Party officials.
China’s growth is generating fantastic wealth and everyone in the country is clamoring for a share. The CCP’s monopoly on power means that there is no check on the officials who would take what is not theirs. It is a safe bet, then, that the inequalities that threaten China’s future will persist.
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