Last week we looked at why the Two Meetings matter, today we’re looking at what this year’s recurring themes were.
Since opening up in the 80’s, gov’t resources have been increasingly targeted at creating advanced cities, abandoning the more equitable development that had been encouraged under Mao. Rural China now finds itself with few medical personnel and crumbling schools while their land is sold out from under them by greedy officials.
Meanwhile Chinese cities have benefited immensely from the policies, which has created a wealthy class that in some cases spends more on a single meal than many farmers make in a year. This new wealth has helped spark a real-estate boom that has led to the quadrupling of real-estate prices in some cities, moving housing out of reach for tens of millions of people.
Inequality is one of China’s greatest challenges, and the message from the Party this year focused largely on what they were doing to address it. This includes maintaining policies that are putting pressure on housing prices (despite the fact that this hurts the investments of the rich), and even some discussion of salary limits for managers of state owned enterprises. It also included talk of growing China’s social security systems, with focuses on the rural population as well as migrant workers.
The hope is that a more equitable country means fewer protests that undermine the Party’s rule.
The ever present talking point was “stability,” meaning maintaining Party rule and avoiding any large changes that may shake the country’s economic progress.
This message was reinforced through the setting of the GDP growth rate slightly lower than in past years. While the target is always exceeded, the reduction signals a shift from raw economic growth by any means to sustainable growth. With growing concerns about China’s economic stability, this is a welcome shift that also comes with further actions being taken to limit gray market lending and greater efforts to minimize the risk of local gov’t debt.
The delegates also improved increased spending on “stability maintenance” and Hu Jintao reinforced that the military serves the Party and is obligated to defend it. With allegations of shootings in Tibet and Xinjiang, the message is worrying for activists. What the Party hopes you heard though, is that they will take the necessary steps to continue economic growth, there is no need to worry about investing your money here.
Yesterday at Wen Jiabao’s press conference, a reporter asked when the Chinese people would finally be able to choose their national leaders. Wen responded by saying that the system must continue to reform, and that when China’s national conditions are adequate there will be democracy. This speech was one of many that came out during the sessions that promoted the idea that China either was already a democracy or was moving in that direction.
The idea they want people to take away is that reforms are on their way, and the Party is gradually implementing democracy.
Two of my Chinese friends were discussing this same topic the other day and one said that reform was coming, and that they should be patient. The other one responded by pointing out that reform only comes from impatience. I would have to completely agree with the latter.
Village democracy began in the 1980’s but has not greatly expanded in the thirty years that the Chinese people have been patient. Furthermore, the expansion of democratic principles we have seen in the past year came from the people and not the Party. For villagers in Wukan to be granted democracy they had to overthrow their local gov’t. For independent candidates to run campaigns on Weibo, they had to brave abuse at the hands of local police. At every turn in the course of the last year we have seen further restrictions of democracy when the people do not demand otherwise.
Just as I was finishing my draft of this post, the Party somewhat quietly announced that Bo Xilai had been replaced. The announcement gives few clues as to what this means for the bigger picture. While it is tempting to see this as a step away from the Red Culture craze that Bo promulgated, it is more of a reminder of how quickly the pendulum can swing in Chinese politics. Not even 12 months ago, millions of Chinese students and workers were singing red songs (a hallmark of Bo’s Chongqing), and today my co-workers seemed to be enjoying the political scandal that brought him down. It’s important to keep in mind that Bo’s replacement, Zhang Dejiang, is not an encouraging sign for progressives.
The Economist has a good summary of his rise and fall.