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China's Legislature Stresses Social Stability


As China's legislature completes the second day of its annual session, Chinese officials have indicated that trying to keep the country's 1.3 billion people happy in hard economic times is a top priority. At the same time, human rights groups are reporting a stepped up crackdown on dissent, in Beijing and around the country.

China's aggressive stimulus program focuses on spending for infrastructure and social programs, to combat the effects of the global economic downturn and head off possible unrest.

At a news conference in Beijing Friday, National Development and Reform Commission chairman Zhang Ping gave some details of how the money will be used.

Zhang says some of the government's stimulus money will go toward education and toward housing subsidies. He also said the money will be spent on infrastructure projects, such as building bridges, and on environmental projects.

At a major speech at the Chinese legislature's opening day Thursday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said social stability is a "major concern" for the government.

There are 20 million laid off workers in China, according to official statistics. That number could grow if the economic downturn worsens.

Heavy security has accompanied the annual Beijing legislative session.

Sharon Hom, from the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights in China, says it is usual to see tighter security in China around big meetings. This year, though, she says the crackdown on dissent is more intense than in previous years and affects a wider range of people.

"What we're seeing is that it's not only in Beijing, but also like in Shanxi and other areas, where you're seeing a diverse group of petitioners, petitioners on a range of issues, from peasants who've had their land taken away, to petitioners who are victims to scams and other scandals, and activists who have been active rights defenders all along," said Hom.

Her group's latest report includes 64-year old petitioner, Wang Xiuzhen, who was detained by police in Beijing, and later reportedly punched and kicked when she tried to protest. Wang has been petitioning the government to investigate a 1998 investment scam that defrauded her and other workers of tens of millions of dollars.

Hom says the Chinese government's purpose in cracking down is to maintain social order.

"They're sending a very clear message, that it's important that there be control, and that I think it's sending a message to rights defenders that are now under surveillance, and petitioners, that they will be dealt with harshly," she said.

The National People's Congress is made up of nearly 3,000 delegates, who approve decisions made by the Chinese Communist Party. The 2009 session ends March 13.

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