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China Pledges Economic Reforms, Silent on Political Freedom

China's new political leadership is promising to do more for the country's millions of impoverished farmers and to close the gap between those who have benefited from economic reforms and those left behind. The pledges come at the end of the 13-day meeting of the National People's Congress. Although China may be refining its economy, there is little indication major political reforms are under serious consideration.

China's new president, Hu Jintao, says then country is prosperous and has a bright future. In his first speech since taking office, Mr. Hu pledged to "rejuvenate" the Chinese nation.

The Communist Party's selection of President Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was approved by the just-completed National People's Congress, in China's most-sweeping leadership transition in a decade.

They now preside over the world's fastest-growing economy, which modernized China's coastal cities, but did little for the rural areas where most of China's one-point-three billion people live and farm.

Some residents of rural and western areas complain they have been shortchanged by Beijing's past economic-development efforts. Now, Prime Minister Wen says he will make boosting rural incomes the top priority for his new government. Mr. Wen says rural poverty hurts demand and slows China's crucial economic growth.

Rural residents are likely to welcome the greater emphasis on their problems. Millions of impoverished farmers have had to leave the land to seek work in the cities.

But urban areas have unemployment problems, as well. China's move from a centrally-planned economy to a more market-oriented one means thousands of state-owned companies are closing. That has thrown tens of millions of people out of work, raising worries about social stability.

The government is working to improve a social security system to help care for the jobless, needy and elderly. But it is expensive and will fall short of the need.

University of Michigan China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal says this long list of tough, expensive problems means China's new leaders will have to settle for adjusting existing policies, rather that starting bold new ones. "These are items that are going to make money very scarce and require very tough choices as to tradeoffs among very worthy efforts," said Mr. Liberthal. "And, I think those are really going to take up the time and energy and attention of the new leadership for years to come."

Private companies have created millions of jobs for displaced workers. Still, private-sector growth is hampered by China's troubled banking system, which is crippled by billions of dollars in bad loans.

China's economic reforms brought enormous growth, by opening up the stagnant state sector to competition. Some experts argue China's economic reform and growth will lose momentum unless it is accompanied by a more-open political system.

But China is tightly ruled by the Communist Party, which decides policy and supervises government activities. The party cracks down harshly on any perceived threat to its dominant role in society, jailing members of unauthorized religious groups like Falun Gong, members of China's Democracy Party and even Communists with unorthodox views.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Wen says political reform that will eventually insure what he calls "the people's role as masters of the country" is on the agenda. Prime Minister Wen says bringing out changes in the country's political structure is a firm objective of his party and his government.

But his vision of political reform is seen by some analysts as being limited to trying to reduce corruption and improve the courts, not opening the system to competing ideas.

Author and analyst Willy Lam says he expects the new government to move cautiously and expects that any political change is at least five years down the road. "They will leave aside contentious and potentially destabilizing issues, such as political reform, for the time being."

So China watchers expect the country's new ruling elite to continue economic reforms, with more emphasis on meeting the needs of the many people left behind in the nation's rush for economic growth. The experts say these are 'baby steps' toward political reform. However, they do not expect the tightly controlled political system to greatly open, in the near future.