Yesterday Premier Wen Jiabao gave his annual “work report” to the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s equivalent of the State of the Union Address. In it, he stressed the government’s commitment to be more open and responsive to the concerns and grievances of its citizens, particularly those who travel to Beijing to submit official petitions complaining of abuses or misconduct by local officials:
We will strengthen the work related to the handling of petitioners’ letters and visits, people’s mediations and administrative mediations; expand the channels for people to report on social conditions and popular sentiment; and effectively solve problems that cause great resentment among the masses, such an unauthorised expropriations of arable land and illegal demolitions of houses.
The very same day, just a few blocks from where Premier Wen was speaking, a reporter from McClatchy news service interviewed some of the people standing in line outside the Petition Office. One had his farm taken away by local officials. Another had his welfare payments cut off after he voted for the wrong candidate in a local election. The reporter tells what happened next:
As more petitioners began to tell their stories, a young man in a black jacket walked up and yelled for them to stop talking. Accompanied by three other men, he snatched people by the arms and pushed them away.
A policeman came over and after checking a McClatchy reporter’s credentials said it was ok for the interviews to continue.
The men responded by hollering even louder and trying to drag a translator working with the reporter down the street. It wasn’t clear whether the men were plainclothes police or security guards employed by provincial authorities to prevent people from airing complaints about hometown grievances.
The policeman, looking a bit nervous, first tried to intercede and then walked off, leaving the men in control of the crowd.
One of them noticed a copy of Wen’s speech being carried by the translator and, apparently mistaking it for a petitioner’s statement, demanded it be handed over.
Told what the document was, the man in plainclothes said that he didn’t care and snapped “Give it to me!”
The reporter and translator eventually got away, but not before seeing the first man in plainclothes approach a witness to the scene, a woman holding several shopping bags, and shoving her around as he yelled “Are you not Chinese? Why are you following them?”
The incident (if you can call it an “incident,” since it’s more a daily state of affairs) comes only a couple days after Western journalists were beaten by similarly-dressed thugs while trying to cover a protest that didn’t even happen on one of Beijing’s busiest shopping streets, and only months after shocking revelations about private security outfits — hired by local and provincial officials — kidnapping petitioners in Beijing and holding them in secret, extra-legal prisons until they can be shipped home and silenced.
To put things in perspective, it’s worth considering the very next lines of Premier Wen’s speech:
We will strengthen and improve the system of public security. We will improve the contingency response system, and enhance society’s capacity to manage crises and withstand risks. We will intensify our information security and secrecy, and improve management of information networks. We will improve all facets of public security, and be on high alert for and crack down on all kinds of crime in accordance with the law.
The most important kinds of crime, of course, being those that threaten the State or the Party. So hearing complaints and unmasking corruption is to be welcomed, except when it threatens to embarrass members of the ruling Party — which is virtually always – in which case it must be ruthlessly punished.
The topics may seem entirely unrelated, but the above dilemma is actually deeply consistent with an observation I made to a Bloomberg reporter yesterday about the economic policy Wen outlined in his speech. On the one hand, he declared that China’s is resolutely committed to tightening monetary policy in order to combat inflation and cool the country’s long-overheated property market. On the other hand, he reiterated the target of sustaining 8% GDP growth. Considering that over half of China’s GDP growth is currently being generated by investment fuelled by cheap money and easy credit, these goals are in conflict. In the immediate term, at least, you can only pursue one at some cost to the other. So which gives way?
Whether it’s economic growth or social stability, China is pursuing conflicting goals, hoping for the best of both worlds. In fact, China faces some tough choices in the year ahead. The important — and unresolved — question is, when push comes to shove, which priorities are China’s leaders really willing to put their weight behind?
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