Accessibility links

Breaking News

China's New Leaders Make Gradual Improvements in Poor People's Lives - 2003-12-22

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

A new generation of leaders took over in China this year. New promises of change and a generally fresh outlook raised expectations among many that democratic reforms would be furthered, as the country continued its spectacular economic performance.

President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao assumed power in March with promises of reforms to improve the lot of the millions of Chinese, mainly farmers and laborers, who have not benefited from China's economic boom.

Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen's ability to govern the world's most populous nation was put to a test early by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed hundreds in China.

Observers say confidence in the country's old leadership was weakened when officials first denied that the new disease had hit the country and then tried to conceal its spread. The new leaders scored their first public opinion victory when they took bold steps such as firing the health minister, and admitted they had made a mistake.

President Hu even spoke publicly about the outbreak. Mr. Hu announced on national television that the disease had been brought under control.

The public uproar over the mishandling of the outbreak and the international outcry as the disease spread around the world signaled to some that China's leaders no could longer resort to old habits. They could not cover up major matters of public concern.

Embarrassed, the government vowed to be more forthcoming and report any new cases if they should appear.

But promises of openness did not extend, at least not significantly, to the political front.

A massive crackdown on Internet users who posted political messages has continued, with scores of arrests throughout the year. In September, authorities stepped up efforts to shut down Web sites that featured discussions on political reform and constitutional amendments.

Expectations of greater political openness dwindled further in October when the central committee of the Communist Party held its first meeting under the new leadership. Following the highly secretive gathering, leaders issued a statement saying political reforms should be carried out in an active and stable manner, but gave no details and laid out no time frame on how that would be achieved.

Despite the slow pace, there are hopes among many in China that democratic reforms will occur.

This year, for the first time, a number of independent candidates were able to run in Beijing neighborhood council elections. With campaigning still illegal in China, one of the candidates, university professor Shu Kexin, said his drive to gain support was heavily monitored by police. Still, he said the elections were a step forward, adding that he could not imagine running in elections like these only five years ago.

2003 was a year of show projects in which China's rulers sought to promote the image of nation that is moving ahead and taking its place as a world leader.

China sent up the Shenzhou 5 manned space capsule, becoming only the third nation after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a human in orbit.

China also gained new international prestige in the area of diplomacy. Beijing played a key role in the United Nations battle over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and it held naval exercises for the first with both Pakistan and India.

Perhaps most notable were its efforts to mediate an end to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Beijing held six-nation talks in August and has been trying to persuade Pyongyang to return to a new round of talks, which are expected early in the coming year.

Analysts say the drive for international prestige is part of a strategy by the country's Communist leaders to show that the party remains relevant, and that they can govern a modern China even when most elements of communism have disappeared from the lives of many people.

Chris Murck is head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. He says political change is inevitable because China's people appear determined to remake the country into a prosperous and modern nation.

"There is also a determination to avoid some of the mistakes of the past and therefore you're going to have a very disciplined, very patient approach, despite the fact that it will be a bumpy road," he said.

In 2004, China will continue its work toward achieving its place as world economic power. Analysts say the government will be under more pressure than ever to improve transparency and shed the remaining elements of its old command economy.

As for the millions of people who live in abject poverty, despite China's economic boom, observers say the government is making gradual improvements in their lives. Many Chinese say they believe President Hu and Prime Minister Wen are sincere in their desire to help the poor.

In early 2003, Prime Minister Wen shocked many when he descended into a mine shaft on China's biggest holiday, Lunar New Year, and share a lunch of dumplings with coal miners. The gesture was seen as symbolic, but there have been modest measures that have been implemented quietly to help poor workers.

For instance, the government has granted farmers rights to their plots of land for 30 years, the closest thing to landowner rights since the 1949 Communist takeover.

Among the tasks President Hu and Prime Minister Wen face in the coming year is an overhaul of the banking system, which is on the verge of collapse because of bad loans that were made to failing state-owned enterprises.