Willy Lam: China's Congressional Concerns

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Lam is a professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.]

While China's National People's Congress is a rubberstamp legislature, its annual plenary session—which kicks off Friday—affords a good window into the thinking of the nontransparent Chinese Communist Party elite. This year's theme is the economy, stupid.

That in itself isn't new, but the economic focus is shifting. While the 2009 NPC harped on attaining an 8% growth rate, the priority for this year's session is to ensure a more equitable distribution of national income. In a talk with China's netizens last week, Premier Wen Jiabao said "while it is the government's responsibility to expand the 'pie' of national wealth, it is the government's conscience to distribute it in an adequate manner." Mr. Wen warned that "if wealth in a society is concentrated in a minority of people, this society will be neither just nor stable."...

Parts of what the Chinese media call a "new deal" have already been announced. The government raised the minimum wage in cities from Beijing to Guangzhou by 10% or more early this year. The Wen cabinet has indicated that old-age benefits for peasants will be tried out this year and will be made available to all by 2015. The Health Ministry said last week that hospital fees—particularly for prescription drugs—would be reduced in 16 cities. And the Education Ministry promised that by 2010, the government would finally achieve the goal—first stated in 1993—that spending on education would reach 4% of GDP.

The NPC will be Beijing's platform for unveiling more such proposals. Goodies for the fast-rising "middle class," which makes up 23% of the population, are in the works. Beijing has pledged to cool down runaway real-estate prices, which have the past year surged by some 30% along the prosperous coastal rim. So far, 20-odd cities have vowed to build more "welfare housing" for lower-income groups. Policies to help China's disaffected "post-1980s generation"—who find it hard to cope with the high costs of urban living—may also be announced at the Congress....

...According to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Yu Jianrong, social unrest has worsened because the level of exploitation has increased. For example, farmers in the past merely had to contend with taxes and levies. Now, Mr. Yu said in a recent speech in Beijing, "corrupt officials are grabbing rural plots of land with the help of criminal gangs." The respected agronomist added that social justice remained illusory because "the CCP has monopolized—and is closely guarding—all political power."...

Beijing always hopes its NPC will present a pleasing photo-op of a secure leadership doing its best to improve life for the people it governs. This year it will benefit from the lifting of the global economic cloud that hung over last year's session. But the leadership is hardly out of the woods.
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