Tuesday, March 15, 2005

China Round-Up

With attention focused on China because of the National People's Congress, press coverage of China has been particularly heavy the past few weeks. The Los Angeles Times has published a series of interesting stories which are all worth your time.

First up is an article about the skyrocketing divorce rate in China, caused by the simplification of divorce laws, which previously required the permission of one's work unit to dissolve a marriage.
"I think it was [socialism theorist Friedrich] Engels who said a marriage without love is amoral," said Shen, the divorce lawyer. "People should have the freedom to choose. I think it's a sign of progress."
But increased freedoms tend to provoke a conservative response, as Olympic gold medalist Tian Liang recently discovered when he attempted to cash in on his newfound celebrity with a string of lucrative endorsement deals. Instead, he was kicked off the team and heavily criticised by the government athletic association for making unauthorized business deals and "tarnishing the sport's image." It is Tian's misfortune to serve as an object lesson in the government's campaign to restore traditional values to modern China.
Under the slogan "A Harmonious Society," President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have laid out a two-part vision for their administration: to bring the ruling Communist Party back to its core values of discipline, virtue and collective effort; and to focus resources and political will on the have-nots, including the rural poor, migrants and urban laborers left behind by two decades of growth...

...Singling out a high-profile figure to make a point is "the old China peeking through," said Andrew Mertha of Washington University. But the mores set forth by Hu and Wen have several tangible goals: By championing the underclass and shunning immodest behavior, they are drawing sharp contrasts to the imperious style of former President Jiang Zemin, who focused on the urban elite, snazzy technology and splashy architecture.

More fundamentally, the leaders hope to defuse the growing instability and discontent fueled by China's yawning wealth gap, potentially a huge challenge to their rule. There were 58,000 protests and riots across the country in 2003, or 160 a day, many over perceived abuses by local authorities, according to government statistics, which could be underreporting the problem...

..Many analysts welcome their focus on alleviating poverty for such a large swath of China's, and the world's, population.

But Hu and Wen's emphasis on greater virtue, old-style Communist study sessions and renewed party discipline worries some. They see in this a willingness to keep the party above the law, able to act as it sees fit rather than establish modern institutions with checks and balances to curb malfeasance and inefficiency.
Finally, the suicide of a government bureaucrat in charge of generating economic statistics for the provincial city of Bengbu prompts a discussion of the unreliability of China's GDP figures. The story might remind those of you familiar with China's recent history of the sorts of distortions in grain production that occurred during the Great Leap Forward, to devastating effect.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has a couple great stories as well. Of particular interest is this article about the censorship of Prime Minister Wen Jiabiao's recent remarks to national and international journalists at the close of the NPC. What is remarkable about this incident is that Wen's remarks were broadcast live to domestic Chinese audiences - giving any observant viewer the rare chance to observe blatant censorship in action. Even more remarkable is what this incident implies about the structures of power in today's China.
"It certainly appears that the Propaganda Department has more authority than even some top leaders," said Jiao Guobiao, a professor at Beijing University who wrote an exposé on the workings of the department last year. "They enforce the party line."...

...Earlier Communist leaders like Mao developed reputations as revolutionaries who could rock the world's most populous nation with pithy asides. But the editing of Mr. Wen may underscore the official contention that today's leadership governs by elite consensus, not the whims of one man.

His boss, Hu Jintao, now China's top leader, often appears more like a creature of the party that created him than its chief. Mr. Hu almost never gives interviews or utters spontaneous comments in public, making it difficult to distinguish his own priorities, or even his personality, from the party he heads...
On a more positive note, the NYT reports on a new policy to eliminate rural school fees. This is very good news for China's rural poor, who have struggled in market-driven China to educate their children. Onerous school fees are thought to have prompted several suicides and rage killings by poor students in recent years...

All of these articles are well-worth a full read.

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