Stability trumps reform
Much of the world coverage of China's on-going National People's Congress (NPC) session has focused on the 7.5 percent GDP growth rate stipulated by Premier Wen Jiabao in his Government Work Report unveiled on Monday March 5.
This figure - the lowest since 2004 - indicates for many analysts that Beijing is genuinely worried about the impact of the on-going international financial crisis on China. In the past two decades, China has been accustomed to growth rates well above 9 percent.
Yet another statistic is perhaps even more indicative of the reality of this complex country: the budget for wei-wen (or upholding stability) for 2012 is set at 701.7 billion yuan, or 11.5 percent above that of last year.
For the second year in a row, expenditures by the police, the state-security agency, the quasi-military People's Armed Police (PAP) and other law-enforcement agencies have exceeded that of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
In his speech to the 3,000-odd parliamentarians, Wen pledged to "comprehensively build up a modernized PAP force" and that various government departments would "resolutely complete tasks including fighting terrorism, upholding stability and handling emergency incidents." "Emergency incidents" is a standard euphemism for riots and disturbances, more than 120,000 cases of which are thought to take place every year.
Apart from tens of thousands of "land grab" cases, which refer to the land and apartments of peasants and urban residents being illegally expropriated for redevelopment, the recent unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang has stained the façade of the "harmonious society" that Premier Wen and President Hu Jintao are so keen to proclaim.
In his Government Work Report, Wen vowed to protect the land rights of farmers and to "uphold the legal rights of religious groups and masses who are believers [in religions]." However, no concrete measures have been announced to help the victims of land grabs as well as sufferers of religious persecution.
A key plank of the nine-year-old Hu-Wen administration is, as Wen said this week, "to effectively safeguard social equality and justice." To this end, the central government has been earmarking more spending for social welfare, including the construction of some 36 million subsidized apartments during the 2011 to 2015 period.
Gap between rich and poor
However, the gap between rich and poor - and that between nouveau-riche speculators with excellent political connections on the one hand, and ordinary, law-abiding workers on the other - is getting wider.
A recent commentary in the China Newsweekly magazine pointed out that while the assets of the super-rich had increased 70 fold from 2005 to 2011, the income of the average worker and farmer had only increased by 2.07 times and 2.14 times respectively in the same period. "The tycoons are in effect ripping off ordinary folks," the magazine claimed.
It also doesn't help that the NPC, which is supposed to be a "chamber of the masses," has recruited the cream of the country's wealthiest entrepreneurs as deputies. Several Chinese websites have carried the report by the US-based "Business Day," that the net worth of the richest 70 NPC members amounted to $85 billion (64.3 billion euros). By comparison, the total assets of all members of the US Congress, the president and his cabinet members, as well as the Supreme Court Justices came up to a mere $7.5 billion.
Also significant are articles in the state media the past week that cited "vested interest blocs" as the most formidable impediment to reform. For example, Sun Jian, a researcher at the CCP journal Seeking Truth, noted that "we must not allow interest groups to block reform."
And He Chuiyun, a commentator for the China Business Times, wrote that "unless we have the determination and courage to reform ourselves, it will be difficult for us to break up the configuration of interest [groups] in the country."
While talking to parliamentarians, Wen pointed out although this was the last year of his administration, he would "summon even more courage to implement reform," adding, "We must use enhanced determination and courage to continue to push forward comprehensive reform of the economic and political structure."
However, apart from repeating standard, pro-forma references to "ensuring the people's right to know, to take part [in politics], to express themselves and to supervise [the government]," Wen said nothing new in his Government Work Report about meaningful political or ideological reform.
Diplomatic analysts in the capital said most senior cadres were preoccupied with jockeying for position at the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress this October, which will usher in a new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PFSC). Competition among the different CCP factions for the nine slots on the PBSC, China's supreme ruling council, is said to be getting more acrimonious than ever.
Author: Willy Lam
Editor: Grahame Lucas