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Sieren's China: What the public expects of the upcoming National People's Congress

Eyes are on Beijing for the annual National People's Congress. But the priorities of the international community don't quite dovetail with the issues the Chinese hope will be addressed, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Traditionally, the National People's Congress is the prime minister's show. He's the head of government, and the government is accountable to the 3,000-odd delegates of the Chinese parliament.

This Thursday, Prime Minister Li Keqiang will be presenting his work at the annual meeting of parliament. Even if its delegates are not freely elected in the western sense, the discussions they're conducting among themselves these days are getting the leadership hot under the collar.

Given current power structures, the tension is rising in the current situation in Beijing. Xi Jinping is the most powerful state and party head since Deng Xiaoping. So how much room does that leave Prime Minister Li to make his own mark? He is unlikely to dwell on the anti-corruption campaign, even though it's such a hot button issue on China these days. It's a party matter, and therefore Xi's business.

Li has most room to manouver in the area of economic reform. He's the architect of China's new 'normal.' In other words, China's period of rapid growth is over and the country is now looking to maintain slower but healthier growth. This will entail social restructuring that has nothing to do with whether Chian grows by 6.5 or 7 percent. Such figures say more about the global economy than China's.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

But the Chinese public is mainly interested in finding out if Li is going to create jobs. Closely tied to this is the issue of who is allowed to work where: How will the governemnt prevent more farmers from moving to the cities in search of better-paid work? How will the government deal with migratory workers already based in the cities? When will they be granted the same rights as urban Chinese?

A third major issue is the environment. It's no coincidence that just ahead of the annual meeting of parliament, journalist Chai Jing managed to release a critical documentary that has already been viewed online 100 million times – and has even been applauded by Environment Minister Chen Jining, despite the pressure it puts him under. Li and his minsiters need to demonstrate their environmental credentials.

Social welfare is a fourth priority. The public is eager to know exactly how financially secure they are in the event of illness or unemployment, and whether housing is going to remain affordable.

The public is probably less interested than the experts in how the government is planning to deal with the faltering economy. How many more times will interest rates be cut? Is there a risk of deflation? Will the RMB, or yuan, need to be devalued to remain internationally competitive? Last week saw the yuan fall to its lowest level since October 2012 after the Chinese Central Bank cut interest rates by 0.25 percent to 5.35 percent in order to inject liquidity into the market and ward off deflation.

How soon should China float the yuan on the international market? To what extent should the financial markets be opened?

China has been witnessing double digit economic growth for almost 3 decades but missed its target of 7.5 growth last year. Over-capacity in industry, but also a slump in the property market, are slowing the economy down to its lowest point in 20 years.

A solution to the dilemma is in sight: China's economy is to get a fundamental makeover. After the revamp, China's economy will not only be more modern but also more stable, so that the country can get by with growth rates of 7 percent without it leading to dissatisfaction among the populace. Instead of depending on external demand, as has been the case thus far, China now aims to stimulate domestic consumption through a variety of reforms.

Evidence that these reforms are already having an effect is provided by statistics from the service sector. Last year productive value here grew by ten percent to 46.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product, ahead even of the industrial sector. The high-tech branch also has a higher share of GDP than the conventional industrial sector. So far, in just two years, the contribution of domestic consumption to economic growth has risen by 15 per cent.

The general population is mostly interested in the extent to which the government implements an economic program that creates enough jobs. Chinese foreign policy positions are of interest to western observers, but for Chinese they are not compulsory but rather optional areas of interest. Whether it's Xi's $40 billion Silk Road project, numerous foreign investments of Chinese firms or Chinese cooperation projects in Africa - China's foreign policy is increasingly about showing presence on the global stage.

This year's People's Congress is particularly interesting for another reason: The current Five-Year Plan ends this year, so the Congress will now turn to the parameters of the next plan covering the years 2016-2020. Li's government will certainly have the ambition to fulfil the plan, too. After all, most of Li's predecessors did.

One of Germany's leading experts on China, Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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