With the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting in Beijing winding down, I thought it might be interesting to take stock of what happened and what didn’t…
What didn’t happen: Any really new policy initiatives. Most of what we heard, we’ve heard before, and we’ve heard it many times. Despite the country’s stellar economic performance, after eight years, there has been virtually no traction on growing income inequality, the deficient pension and health care systems, growing environmental degradation and pollution, reform in the educational system, and the biggest issue of all (because it underpins so many other social challenges China faces), corruption. Yes, there is some new money being poured into health care, but what difference will it really make without policy reform along side it? It remains to be seen whether the fresh faces of the fifth generation leaders—scheduled to be announced in 2012—will fare any better than the fourth in tackling the pressing social issues of China today. Until then, it seems that Hu’s and Wen’s promise of a “harmonious society” will remain as elusive as ever.
What did happen: Speaking of the fifth generation, the race is on. Who among the fifth generation leaders will sit in the Standing Committee of the Politburo and occupy the top spots? Bo Xilai, former Mayor of Dalian, Minister of Commerce and current Party head of Chongqing garnered a lot of publicity during the NPC with his anti-corruption campaign, which netted some 3,000 potentially corrupt officials and businesspeople. Some reports suggest that he embarrassed a number of his colleagues in the process. With this campaign, he has become a bona fide political rock star, with his own song and popular following among the country’s netizens. Traditionally, however, keeping your head low is the way to go, lest it get lopped off. We’ll have to wait to see whether Bo overplayed his hand.
Along the same lines, how will all these fifth generation leaders actually work together? They are trained mostly as lawyers, economists and historians, and most have managed affairs in their own regions with a degree of flair and independence not seen in a long time. This looks to me like the strongest group of Chinese leaders since the 1950s; but it might be too strong for any one of them to manage. After a long drought in Pekinology, leadership politics might once again become fun post-2012.
What might have happened: Reform of the “hukou” system. Premier Wen suggested that China was on the brink of loosening the household registration process that controls where people can live. In practical terms, this would mean that the roughly 200 million migrant workers might have access to healthcare, housing, social security and be able to send their children to school legally in the cities where they are working. This would seem to be an important first step in ensuring that the urbanization process Beijing is pushing so aggressively actually brings about the necessary benefits in improved living standards for the Chinese people. Yet, when a set of fourteen newspapers publicly endorsed an editorial supporting the initiative, the hammer fell, with one journalist, Zhang Hong from the Economic Observer, losing his job. I can only assume that the boldness of the call--“We hope that the rigid household registration system ends with our generation. Let the next generation enjoy the sacred rights enshrined in our constitution, to freedom, democracy and equality”--pushed on a political door that China’s current leaders don’t want open. But with the fifth generation right around the corner, who knows what might happen…