China's equivalent of a national parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), is the country's highest institution of state. This does not stop it from being routinely described as a "rubber-stamp", composed of delegates from across the vast country who gather just once a year in Beijing to pass (more or less unanimously) the policies and laws that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) put before it.
This year's meeting (5-14 March 2006) was no different from previous ones, except for one thing: the party's spin-doctors and their tool, the national media, worked overtime to tell the world that this time it was different.
Among the proposals that the congress was asked to, well, rubber-stamp and one which 97% of the 2,891 deputies duly did was the "Eleventh Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development". Its contents had been trailed in the Chinese media for months, so there were no surprises on the day.
The party sought to claim two innovations. First, the eleventh plan is not a traditional plan at all; there are no sector targets only indications of the fiscal revenues to be allocated for various uses. The sole target rate of growth given is for gross domestic product (GDP), which is set 21% lower than that achieved over the last five years, down to 7.5% from 9.5%.
The second claim is that the plan drops the single-minded focus on fast economic growth and refocuses government policy on social objectives. Much attention was given to the plight of the 900 million people who live in rural areas and to the poor living conditions of many urban residents.
A whole chapter is devoted to ways of improving conditions in the "new socialist countryside", where vast numbers of Chinese citizens live in abject poverty. Much attention is also given to ways of increasing employment in towns where more than 100 million poor rural workers have moved in search of better conditions, but who still live (according to official statistics) in poverty. It is this highlighting of the social issues that arise from poverty, and of ways of dealing with them, that distinguishes the eleventh plan from the previous ten.
However, if you believe that simply by recognising publicly how Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Deng Xiaopingist political philosophy is going to significantly change the conditions of the poor in China, you are probably the sort of person who believes that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Plans of this kind are, after all, socialist dictators' substitutes for election manifestoes and worth about as much: nothing.
The eleventh five-year plan reflects the dreams of a highly competent group of economists and technologists who work for the Chinese government. It is no more than their wishful thinking; they know this. They know they work within political constraints that mean the plan is more or less devoid of policies that would allow any objectives to be achieved, or, where policies have been identified, have any chance of being effectively enforced.
What was interesting about the discussion of the eleventh plan was the extent and depth of criticism of it, both in the congress and in the media. Indeed, some of the criticism of the economic and social situation in China was extremely scathing.
In commenting on planning issues, the Chinese media made much of the failures of previous leaders, by implication contrasting the mess that they produced with the golden future towards which president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao are now guiding the nation. Just one article in the People's Daily the CCP's main media outlet drew attention to a litany of problems and issues:
- social inequity
- environmental degradation and pollution
- rural poverty
- worsening social security, including the collapse of rural health services and education
- growing rural illiteracy
- resistance to reform of the state-owned sector
- constraints on private-sector development
- overdependence on overseas trade to support growth
- failure to support local technological innovation
- overemphasis on coastal development
- growing unemployment
- worsening corruption among party officials and government officers
- failure of democratic processes (especially the failures to establish a protective legal system and to increase popular participation in politics).
Clearly, the old leaders have much to answer for and some in the official media are prepared, albeit in as coded and ostensibly conformist a way as possible, to pose the questions.
Also in openDemocracy on Chinas politics, economics and society:
Agnes Chong, "Chinese civil society comes of age" (September 2005)
Jemima Streeten, "Chinas search for justice: the case of Zhang Zhao'an"
Isabel Hilton, "Beijings media chill"
Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (February 2006)
Edward Denison, "Restoring history in China" (February 2006)
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The closing of dissent
One of the main news items during the congress was about what a nice guy premier Wen is, and how truly focused he is on the needs of the people who have been left behind by previous leaders. When he recently visited a poor village which he does frequently it was noted that he wore the same coat he had worn when he visited the village ten years ago. A cue, perhaps, for a comparison with the luxurious mansion that former president Jiang Zemin is building in Shanghai and the expensive lifestyle he leads?
The People's Daily also listed questions sent to Wen via the internet: pleas for help from rural residents whose land and homes were taken by corrupt officials, complaints about the rising cost of housing, education and health care, and the prospect of unemployment for graduates.
Why so much stress on the failures of the reformers since and including Deng Xiaoping? The answer is that the new leaders are true communists. They really believe. Hu has eulogised Mao more than once and frequently made it clear that his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, placed too much emphasis on the market. "Look what it has done", he is saying.
This also explains why criticism of past leaders since Deng is now acceptable, while criticism of the new leaders who are going to take China back to purer communism is not. Dissent is being strongly clamped down on.
The new leaders have encouraged a witchhunt of liberal thinkers in the universities and think-tanks. 80-year-old Liu Guoguang, an early reformer and member of the party's standing committee, has recanted his views on market reform, arguing now that the introduction of western economic and political ideas into China was a great mistake. As a result, honours have rained upon him over the last year. All over China, Liu Guoguang societies have sprung up, calling for an end to the market-reform experiments.
The growing political strength of the communist recidivists was indicated by the withdrawal of a draft new law proposed by liberals in the NPC standing committee that would have strengthened individuals' private-property rights.
I am sure that many of the people supporting Wen Jiabao's refocus on the losers from the last twenty-five years of "reform and opening up" genuinely believe that something could and should be done to improve the lot of the poor and disadvantaged. But I am also sure that the new government has put more funds in the hands of the army and the police to strengthen their ability to suppress and repress dissent dissent arising from the deprivation and poverty that the ruling party imposes on most Chinese people. The continuation in power of the Chinese Communist Party, at whatever price, is the only real political objective in China today.