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Wrestling with Change in China


China's Communist Party will open its congress this week in Beijing. As the party's leaders bask in the glow of the country's economic success, they find themselves grappling with the tensions and problems that growing prosperity has brought.

The Communist Party Congresses that convene every five years have historically been occasions of intense political rivalry, purges and major policy shifts. This year, the congress is expected to be a tame affair politically. But as the top party leaders extol China's growing prosperity, they find themselves confronting a host of problems brought about by the country's rapid economic growth.

Income disparity, widespread corruption and environmental degradation are some of the most pressing issues in China today. These problems have hit China's poor majority the hardest, and have stoked protests and riots in the countryside.

China's economy expanded nine-point-eight percent last year, continuing a two-decade-long boom that is the envy of the world. The boom has benefited cities, especially those along the country's eastern and southern seaboards. But the rural heartland has been largely left behind.

Growing Rich – Poor Gap

As China's rich urban elite increasingly displays its wealth, rural residents are clamoring for better living conditions. Last month, the Vice Minister for Agriculture, Ying Chengjie, gauged rural discontent. He says the government has yet to effectively deal with the growing gap between farmers' incomes and those of urban Chinese. He says more than 100-million farmers left the countryside last year to work in the cities, hoping to improve their lives.

Richard Baum, Director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says China's uneven development is a major issue for the country's leadership. "I think they need to shift the priorities from all-out development at any cost to a more balanced and equitable distribution of burdens and benefits. They [Chinese officials] would have to be inviting political instability, and they know that."

President Hu Jintao has stressed the importance of stability, or what he calls a "harmonious society", and has championed the plight of China's rural residents. He abolished a series of agricultural taxes and promised basic living allowances and better health care. He has also focused on developing the country's less developed regions.

At this week's 17th Party Congress, Mr. Hu is expected to bring trusted aides from some of China's poorest provinces into senior party posts -- people who understand his vision and who can ensure policy implementation.

In the meantime, many experts wonder how much of this policy can reach down to the village level. Political analysts say local officials have their own agendas and sometimes administer their cities or towns like fiefdoms. Abuses of power and corruption are widespread.

Human rights organizations say local officials hide problems from the central government by using force and intimidation to prevent citizens from reporting them to authorities in Beijing.

Corruption Crackdown

The party has stepped up discipline within its ranks. Chinese state media say more than 97,000 officials were disciplined last year for corruption. This year, the party fired several high-profile officials, including the Shanghai party boss, for alleged corruption. The former head of the country's food and drug agency was executed for taking bribes.

Political scientist Joseph Cheng at the City University in Hong Kong says China's leaders want to appear tough on the problems in order to head off popular discontent.

"There is a general perception that the bulk of the rich people earned their wealth by corrupt practices rather than by entrepreneurship. So corruption is seen as a very serious threat to the legitimacy of the party, to the legitimacy of the leadership, exactly because this is seen as the very important symptom of the inadequacies of the political system," says Cheng.

Problems of Communism

But experts say getting rid of corruption would require painful reforms that the 73-million-strong Communist Party may not be willing to accept. UCLA's Richard Baum says unless a truly independent agency that can investigate and punish corrupt officials is established, the Party's attempt at self-discipline is a "losing battle." "You've got the guardians guarding themselves -- the systemic forces of corruption. The temptation of corruption is endemic in the structure of the system," says Baum.

The current system has allowed cadres to get rich and the Communist Party to maintain its grip on power. Changing this, experts say, could endanger the party's survival.

"They don't want to jeopardize the system because they think the risk they're taking by opening, democratizing, the system is bigger than the one they are facing in tolerating a certain degree of corruption and making public the most obvious cases. At the end of the day, they think it's less dangerous to continue that way," says Jean Pierre Cabestan, a politics professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University.

At the 12th Party Congress in 1982, Deng Xiaoping proposed "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and cleared the path toward a market economy and China's economic boom. Today, 25 years later, experts say the responsibility is on Hu Jintao's shoulders to deal with the pain that has resulted.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.