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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Cap vers la réduction de la fracture sociale chinoise ?

by Dominique Bari

The road to bridging the gap between rich and poor in China?

Translated Sunday 12 November 2006, by Emily Plank

China. Jacques Chirac starts off his visit to a country planning to shift the focus of economic growth onto social issues and development of rural areas.

Beijing. Special correspondent.

While hosting Jacques Chirac, Chinese president, Hu Jintao, will no doubt remind his French counterpart of the current policy in place for bridging the social gap between rich and poor in the People’s Republic of China. Following three decades of reforms, the country was last year ranked the fourth most important economic power, overtaking Great Britain – a ranking taken out of context, as it does not reflect the large paradoxes existing in China today. With an average growth of 10%, China has managed to rescue 300 million people from poverty (less than a dollar a day) and create a middle class of some 200 million people. However, in this same period, income inequality has doubled, causing profound contradictions.

The rebalancing proposed in the 11th five year plan passed by the national Assembly last Spring was recently approved during a session of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee. According to observers, it is the first meeting dedicated to social development issues. It was no coincidence, nor was it conducted in the calmest of environments.

At the root of social discontent, the party’s new leaders are attempting to put an end to previous rulers, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji’s, rampant pursuit of extremely liberal growth, which saw an acceleration in social and regional disparities, a rise in unemployment, and caused a rural crisis and increasingly visible social conflict. 87 000 violent incidents were officially recorded in 2005, hence sinologist Jean-Louis Rocca’s quote that “China is a growing, but conflicting society”.

Social harmony – the CCP’s new motto

It’s not just physical conflict that has been taking place, however, with Chinese intellectuals engaging in deep debates over the last few years. “Authorities acknowledge the current failure of health, education and rural reforms. They understood it was necessary to create a social security system,” explains Wang Hui, one of Dushu magazine’s (Read) leading critical intellectuals. By modifying development programmes, with the aim of more equal growth, President Hu Jintao, along with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, look to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. Social harmony, the new CCP’s new motto, seeks to do away with Jiang Zemin’s very unpopular concept of the “Three Represents”* , and open the Party’s doors to Chinese entrepreneurs, and the ever growing working class and farmers. Any cases of embezzlement are now systematically disclosed.

The CCP’s October resolution set a series of ambitious objectives: better control of growth to avoid dangerous economic overheating and the ever-widening gap between salaries of the “nouveau riche” and the less-fortunate. Ensuring a better life for farmers, and taking a stand against environmental damage are thus of utmost importance, as it is these two aspects which cause the most grief in rural communities. The first measure: the government has announced it will introduce a social security scheme whereby over a billion people will be covered by 2020. Creating more equal opportunities is another issue to be addressed, as China currently invests 3% of its GDP in education, with the global average being 5%.

China has already announced in its 11th five year plan that it is going to shift away from a dependency on exports and foreign investments to focussing more on internal growth, by increasing farmers’ incomes, which would revitalise rural areas, where half the country’s population live. Agricultural tax was abolished last January. The effects of these new developments remain to be seen in a country limited to a narrow political sphere of summit decisions. “Everyone recognises the central power’s difficulty in imposing its policies on a local level. The first step would be allowing true freedom of speech and opinion, then introduce a system which allows society to organise itself to protect its interests, starting with allowing workers to unite. That is the key to creating more justice,” Wang Hui comments.

Overhaul of provincial governors

Today there are two opposing concepts at the heart of the CCP and the current leaders need a free hand to enforce their own ideas at the 17th CCP Congress scheduled for October 2007. The Chinese Communist Party will prepare to conduct a large-scale overhauling of its provincial governors with the aim of bringing into line those local leaders who hinder orders from Beijing to counter economic overheating.

*A Policy representing the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces, culture, and majority’s interests.

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