Date Posted: 14:30 16/10/2005
Plans and pipedreams
The new Five-Year Plan recognizes the problems, but can it solve them?
ACCORDING TO the excited and extravagantly red-headlined proclamations in the state press this week, China's new Five-Year Plan marks a 'sea-change' in the role of Chinese government and a shift away from 'traditional modes of economic development'. By abandoning the Deng-era 'first-get-rich' approach and replacing it with the goals of 'common prosperity', the Plan – passed by the Fifth Plenum of the Sixteenth Party Committee on Tuesday - reflects the attention now being paid in government circles to the steady build-up of bile and resentment among the nation's less fortunate.
By putting so much stress on words like 'balance' and 'harmony' and 'sustainability', it also enshrines some of the catchphrases currently being used by the country's troubled senior officials, but will it make any difference? The new Five-Year Plan, after all, also 'marks the passing into history of the planned economy' (Xinhua), placing the emphasis on macroeconomic management rather than specific Communist-era output targets. Meanwhile, reports are already suggesting that, during the Plenum, Hu Jintao failed in his attempts to deepen grass-roots political reform and weaken the entrenched regional power bases that have been causing so much trouble for the central government in recent years.
Most of us are so familiar by now with China's problems that the Party no longer finds it worthwhile even to try to conceal them. A report issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security in August admitted that the income gap was leading to social disorder throughout the country. It said that if specific measures were not introduced to halt the growing inequalities in the next five years, the situation would get even worse. We are now in a state of 'yellow alert', said the report, and by 2010, it could reach red.
The Public Security Bureau had already revealed that there were 74,000 demonstrations and protests in the whole of last year, up from 58,000 in 2003 and 10,000 in 1995. These, generally, have been spontaneous uprisings by rural subsistence-level communities about to be evicted to make way for some new industrial park or leisure facility, by legions of laid-off workers in the northeast rustbelts with no other alternatives, or by villagers inconvenienced by miscellaneous examples of malfeasance and corruption among local officials. Party theorists pointed out that the government was, in effect, the victim of its own success. By creating so much new wealth, the 'reform and opening-up' period had also created a new class structure and a new set of 'internal contradictions', most of which were predominantly 'non-antagonistic' in nature. The grievances being voiced were, in effect, within the acknowledged purview of the Party: they did not break ideological taboos about the monopoly of Communist rule or the unity of the nation, and the key challenge of the government was to ensure that they remained as such.
In the years of reform, the Communist elite had effectively converted political power into economic power. In doing so, they had also created a new parasitical gangster class that in some cases overlapped with, but was not necessarily confined to, the organizational structures of the Party. The protests were 'non-antagonistic' only insofar as the central government and Party could dissociate themselves from the consequences of reform and blame everything on regional failures to implement policy and combat corruption. This, in turn, has required the frequent arrest and high-profile trial of local 'mafia-like organizations' in areas like Panjin and Shenyang in the northeast.
IT IS ironic, of course, that as the Party casts away most of its baggage, the theories that supposedly brought it to power have never before been so apposite. China is in the throes of a social and economic revolution brought about by the relationship its new ruling class has established with globalized capital, and the government is being employed to keep the masses in line and in the factories. Creaky old state-owned firms are imploding under the pressures of market competition, leaving much of their bloated workforce to fend for themselves. Despite marked improvements in many regions, the peasantry remains impoverished and embittered.
Now that the Chinese government has proclaimed that the class war is over, class distinctions are actually sharpening. In Marxist-Hegelian terms, this necessary stage in historical progress is creating the conditions for its own sublation. Capitalism, in effect, is eating itself, and the irony is that the Communist Party happens to be in charge of the process.
By the same token, you could argue that the prescriptions of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan are the first stage in an ameliorist counteroffensive on the part of the ruling class. Europeans are very familiar with the fact that the survival of the capitalist system required a few sacrifices in the guise of the universal franchise, a series of national welfare programmes and the introduction of socialized medicine. For these reasons, John Maynard Keynes has been described as the saviour of the market system. The issue is whether or not the current Chinese state is capable of bringing enough hope to communities in despair, and whether or not it has the power and resources to implement policies relating to education, health, employment and welfare in the poorest regions.
Curiously, shortly after the Fifth Plenum of the Sixteenth Party Committee finished its business on Tuesday, Rupert Hoogewerf emerged into the limelight once again with his China Rich List. Amidst great media fanfare, the list revealed - not surprisingly - that the richest hundred were indeed richer than they were last year. It is a universal fact that while the masses toil, the lucky few get even richer, but in China, the traditional politics of envy are compounded by the fact that no one trusts the system. The suspicion that wealth has been accumulated by stealth and embezzlement is supported by the fact that many of the well-known billionaires on Hoogewerf's list would prefer not to be, especially when a significant number of people on his previous lists have been locked up. Entrepreneurs have exploited their connections and/or their government positions to engineer buy-outs of state-owned firms or to secure lucrative mineral deposits. They have issued bribes and favours to bypass regulations. They have run roughshod over the poor and naturally, the poor are resentful. Those who have been educated in the ways of revolution and in the slogans of the Party are doubly angered by the betrayal, and frequently use the language of Marxism to make their points: the protesting laid-off workers at Chongqing Special Steel last week were all singing the Internationale. Meanwhile, the super-rich, in many cases, are under a state of siege after a spate of high-profile kidnappings.
During the National Day holidays, China's reliably indignant bulletin-boarders found another cause of consternation when a rich 47-year old woman and her 23-year old daughter were knifed to death in Liaoning Province by an angry bicycle repair man after a traffic accident. A selection of China's netizens were on the side of the repair man, and similar sympathies were expressed when the student, Ma Jiajue, murdered his classmates at Kunming University last year. While the nationwide manhunt was going on for Ma, netizens wondered if society was in fact to blame, suggesting that the student had been driven insane by envy and the humiliation of having nothing. More recently, we also have the case of Wang Binyu, a migrant worker who murdered a colleague after he was repeatedly abused and left unpaid by his bosses. Once again, many netizens sprang to his defence, with many claiming that Wang had been driven mad by mistreatment. It says something about the imbalances in modern Chinese society that apparently educated netizens could support the murder of the well-off by the poor.
There is, at least, a consensus. The Chinese government agrees that something has to be done, and there is no reason to question their sincerity. How much power do they have to enforce their policies on entrenched local governments? Among the specific policy documents to emerge in the wake of the Fifth Plenum last weekend was a set of eight demands issued by the State Council to eliminate extravagant spending by local officials in poor regions. The Notice Regarding Related Problems in the Opposition of Extravagance and Waste in Poor Regions targets the construction of pointless 'prestige' office blocks, the use of public funds to pay for banquets, and the excessive celebration of public festivals. It's a start, but will it make any difference? Hu Jintao is already rumoured to be in a fug over his failure to persuade the assembled Party Plenum bigwigs to support faster political reform and stronger 'macroeconomic control' measures. Local government cliques are unlikely to be having sleepless nights just yet.
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