While China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) does not function like a legislature in the West, its annual meeting is still an important date on the country’s political calendar. At the conclave, the Chinese leadership lays out its policy agenda for the year ahead, and the government work program is one of the clearest windows through which the world can assess the leadership’s world view and priorities. At this year’s meeting (March 5-14), the theme was China’s growing strength and, at the same time, concern that rising expectations were not being met. China’s leaders have delivered on promises of improving the lives of ordinary Chinese but their job is becoming more difficult.
Just under 3,000 parliamentarians make up the NPC. They are part-time legislators who hold other jobs and are briefed on parliamentary business just days before the congress convenes. Most have a rudimentary understanding of the issues they deal with when the congress meets; they certainly do not have a strong grasp of the details of the legislation they are to consider. That is, in fact, how the system is supposed to work.
While there were actual debates over bills some decades ago, that is no longer the case. Today, the NPC is an institution that rubber stamps bills that have been submitted to them by the party leadership.
In his work report to the congress, Premier Wen Jiabao was justifiably proud of China’s ability to weather the crisis that descended upon the global economy. While the rest of the world lay in the doldrums, China’s economy grew 8.7 percent in 2009, and managed to record a double-digit growth rate — 10.7 percent — in the last quarter of the year. Targets for 2010 remain at 8 percent, a goal that should be easily achieved; the International Monetary Fund forecasts 9 percent growth for China this year.
Despite that success, China’s leaders worry about uneven growth, rising public expectations and an economy that is not prepared for shocks. Beijing has been unstinting in its efforts to stimulate the economy as global demand has been evaporating, and while successful in the short term, that has created problems of its own over time. The result is initiatives that appear to pull policy in two different directions.
Mr. Wen warned that “latent risks in the banking and public finance sectors are increasing,” even as he pledged to increase lending by $1.1 trillion, a 17-percent jump, in 2010. His government has to balance the need to provide funds for infrastructure development with the need to dampen speculative pressures that are driving up housing prices and putting urban home ownership beyond the reach of most Chinese. He promised to lighten government interference in the micro-economy, while pushing for greater efficiency in government services. He expressed concern about creating sufficient demand to continue job creation, while at the same time denouncing excess in key industries.
Perhaps Mr. Wen’s greatest concern is widening inequality. Great efforts are needed to ensure fair distribution of the economic pie. There are tens of thousands — some estimate as many as 100,000 — demonstrations of social unrest each year in China. They range in scale from major disruptions such as those in Xinjiang last year to protests by handfuls of people against corruption, workplace closures and other grievances triggered by a sense of powerlessness and disadvantage. In his report to the NPC, Mr. Wen conceded that the government’s efforts “fell considerably short of public expectations.”
Sensitivities surrounding inequality were on display just before the NPC, when 13 provincial newspapers published an editorial calling for the elimination of the resident-registration system, which limits the right of Chinese to live wherever they choose. In his speech, Mr. Wen reiterated old promises of reform — but the editorial disappeared from newspapers’ Web sites within days of its initial publication, and the man responsible for putting it together has been demoted. While Mr. Wen has promised to give the Chinese people more insight into and influence over government, it is clear that there are definite limits to real political debate in China.
Domestic political concerns magnify “destabilizing factors and uncertainties” in the world economy that threaten China’s growth. The upward trend in its defense spending has slowed, with domestic economic conditions and rising international concern about China’s military profile contributing. In 2010, the official military budget is estimated to grow 7.5 percent, for a total of about $77.9 billion. Western experts regard that estimate as conservative, and believe it could be as little as half of China’s actual military spending.
Most Chinese are pleased by their nation’s growing muscle and approve of a military more capable of defending national interests. At the same time, however, China has reason to go more slowly: There is an inevitable choice between “guns or tofu.” A 7.5-percent expansion, while substantial, is the first time since 1989 that China’s military budget has increased by less than 10 percent. The lower figure might go some way toward dampening foreign criticism that China’s military spending is out of proportion to potential threats, and that it signals troubling intent on the part of Beijing, but it will not eradicate these concerns. Neighboring countries cannot be totally unworried about China’s military buildup.
China’s leaders are struggling, as ever, to balance competing concerns. The NPC makes that struggle a little more visible.
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