Serving the People to ward off colour revolutions

China’s top Communist Party officials are watching the sweeping changes across north Africa and the Middle East with great caution, writes Willy Lam.

“Turn a bad thing into a good thing,” said Chairman Mao Zedong.
Some of the Great Helmsman’s wisdom seems to have been evidenced by the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s reaction to the “colour revolutions” that are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Officially, neither the Chinese Foreign Ministry nor other departments have responded to queries about whether Beijing is nervous about a people power-style insurrection.

Yet academics who are also members of official think tanks have indicated that the “wake-up call” from Egypt and Tunisia serves as a timely reminder that the CCP administration must improve the people’s livelihood and bolster social-welfare services in order to stay in power. After all, it was Mao who coined the famous “serve the masses” dictum. And President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who will be retiring from the Politburo in October next year, realize that their legacy – and the CCP’s “perennial ruling party” status – hinges on whether they are seen as having lived up to their credos of “putting people first’ and buttressing social justice.

In an apparent attempt to forestall social unrest, the CCP leadership has, for the past several weeks, spotlighted the “close-to-the-masses” persona of senior cadres. Almost immediately after the Tunisian uprising, Premier Wen paid a visit to the State Bureau of Letters and Petitions to talk to disgruntled residents who were trying to lodge complaints against governments of different levels.


“Our power is entrusted by the people,” Wen told the petitioners. “We should use our power to seek benefits for the people and we should responsibly tackle the difficulties faced by the people.”

It was the first time that a senior official had ever talked to petitioners, who are regularly harassed and even imprisoned by police and state-security personnel.
And during the Lunar New Year period, Wen and Hu mingled with the masses during inspection tours to respectively Hebei and Shandong provinces. Both leaders pledged that the government would pay more attention to the people’s livelihood particularly at times of inflation.

Official newspapers have played up substantial increases in social-security expenditures in the government’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011 to 2015). For example, annual increases in unemployment payouts, old-age subsidies and other benefits will by the middle of the decade be basically pegged to the rate of inflation. In response to widespread gripes about the real-estate bubble, cities including Beijing and Shanghai have introduced measures such as property taxes to discourage speculation. The central government has also vowed to build more subvented and low-cost housing in the coming five years. The target for 2011 is 10 million subsidized flats, a rise of 70 percent over last year’s figure.

On top of the 22.8 percent increase in minimum wages across China last year, different cities have already announced salary hikes of around 15 percent to help workers cope with fast-rising living costs.

Beijing has also unveiled ambitious plans to augment medical services. For example, the government’s annual payout to the national medical insurance scheme will be raised from 120 yuan to 200 yuan per person and up to 70 percent of surgery costs will be covered by public insurance.

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Compared to most regimes that had battled “color revolutions” in the past two decades or so, the CCP administration has the distinct advantage of having a huge war chest. In 2010, central coffers raked in a record 8.31 trillion yuan in taxation and other revenues, up 21.3 percent over that of 2009. This did not include massive profits realized by 129 state-controlled corporations that enjoy monopolistic status in areas ranging from oil and gas to banking and finance.

Yet there is no denying that the rich-poor gap has been yawning wider despite pledges of more government dispensation to poorer social sectors. China’s Gini Coefficient, a measurement of income inequality, has edged past 0.5, which is regarded as a threshold for potentially debilitating social upheaval. And while the income of almost all sectors has increased in the past decade, disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers and peasants feel that members of the “new aristocracy” – senior cadres and businessmen – have been helping themselves to a lopsidedly big chunk of the economic pie.

Dissidents and NGO activists who have been emboldened by the “Jasmine revolution” in Tunisia and the “Lotus Revolution” in Egypt may be demanding a larger share of political power – and not just more generous social-welfare handouts. However, given that the Hu-Wen administration is preoccupied with preparations for next year’s 18th CCP Congress – which will witness the passage of power from the Fourth- to the Fifth-Generation leadership – Beijing might be tempted to use excessively heavy-handed tactics to crack down on advocates of political liberalization.

A key thrust of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011 to 2015) is boosting domestic consumption. China’s consumers, of course, will tend to spend more if the socio-political situation is stable – and if they are assured about adequate medical and other welfare benefits from the government. It remains to be seen whether the Hu-Wen leadership’s serve-the-masses commitments will attain the twin goals of placating disgruntled social sectors as well as encouraging consumer spending.

Should the masses start demanding a bigger say in matters including how political and economic resources are being parceled out, however, the CCP leadership has to brace itself for one of the most serious crises since the start of the Era of Reform.




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