China's new priority: social wellbeing over growth

Tuesday - 3/5/2013, 11:10pm EST

Delegate leave after the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. China's government promised its people Tuesday deficit-fueled spending to fight deep-seated corruption, improve the despoiled environment and address other quality-of-life issues demanded by an increasingly vocal public looking for change. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

GILLIAN WONG
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) -- China's government pledged to repair the country's ravaged environment and boost public services under its new leadership, an acknowledgment that quality of life was sidelined during the outgoing administration's decade of breakneck economic growth.

In a policy speech opening the national legislature's yearly session Tuesday, soon-to-retire Premier Wen Jiabao detailed a list of problems that had grown in recent years and was being left to his successors: a sputtering growth model; poisoned air, waterways and soil; a vast and growing rich-poor gap; and rampant official corruption that has alienated many Chinese.

"Is this a time bomb?" Yao Jianfu, a retirement government researcher, asked. Yao's specialty is China's army of migrant workers who are often deprived of access to housing, education and other government services. "If there's an economic downturn and massive unemployment, will the 200 million migrant workers become the main force of the next Cultural Revolution?" he said, referring to the excesses of the chaotic 1966-76 period.

The unfinished agenda of China's past decade are now central concerns of the new leadership as it seeks to assuage a public that is looking beyond pocket-book issues, empowered by the Internet and increasingly vocal about the need for change.

Wen acknowledged the responsibility he and other retiring leaders have for leaving such a tangle of problems, even as they have guided China to prosperity and power on the world stage.

"Some of these problems have built up over time, while others have emerged in the course of economic and social development, and still others have been caused by inadequacies and weaknesses in our government work," Wen said in a 100-minute speech to the nearly 3,000 legislative deputies in the Great Hall of the People, his last address before stepping down.

Though Wen delivered the address, it represents the priorities of the new leadership headed by Communist Party chief Xi Jinping and it underscores the inflection point many Chinese feel the country has reached: The policies that delivered stunning growth are foundering in the ill-effects of corruption and environmental degradation, and many Chinese believe benefits unfairly accrue to a party-connected elite.

The legislative session completes the once-a-decade leadership transition that began four months ago when Xi and other younger leaders were installed as party leaders. The largely ceremonial legislature, known as the National People's Congress, will approve appointments to top government posts to manage the economic and foreign policies, rounding out the team Xi will need to govern.

In his first months in office, Xi has raised expectations for change, talking about the urgent need to stanch graft and adhere to laws rather than rule by untrammeled power.

The policy address and an accompanying budget presented Tuesday give a mixed picture of how different a course Xi intends to steer. Defense spending will increase 10.7 percent to 720 billion yuan ($114 billion) -- a higher rate than the overall growth of the budget that comes as China engages in tense territorial disputes with neighbors and seeks to reduce U.S. influence in the region.

Spending on public security is getting an 8 percent boost to 769 billion yuan ($124 billion), making this the third year in a row that outlays for the police, courts and other law enforcement exceeds defense spending. This, despite public unhappiness over the enormous state security system that is used to repress threats to the party and runs roughshod over the legal system.

Wen called several times for a change in the country's growth model to reduce waste, build out the service sector as a source of much-needed employment and direct spending to subsidized housing and other social programs that would boost household consumption. On restoring the environment, Wen called for curbing pollution and reducing energy consumption.

In all cases, however, the address was short on specifics, especially on the sore-points of the environment and corruption, and that drew critical reviews.

"A report like this did not move me one bit," said Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan. He called Wen's farewell address "comprehensive but mediocre."

Shanghai-based independent scholar Zhao Chu said the work report is disappointing. Though it acknowledges myriad social issues China faces, it fails to address the root problem and is indicative of the upcoming leadership.

"The root issue is unchecked power; that's fundamental. If you don't touch this issue, there's no real change, and what you have is pretty words," Zhao said.

The speech failed to address public calls for greater political freedom, which have swelled in the months since Xi took over as party chief. Academics and activists have signed various open letters and petitions on issues ranging from constitutional governance or an easing of censorship.