A New Age of Chinese Socialism
Kitty Poon (Research Fellow at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong)
Premier Wen Jiabao outlined a policy shift that is unprecedented in the history of mainland reforms this week, in his work report to the National People's Congress. It came in two parts: one he called a "New Socialist Countryside", and the other was the first scheme to increase infrastructure spending in impoverished rural areas.
This was unique because it swung the focus of policy from urban areas to rural, and in its pledge to restore the state's social commitment to the needy.
The new initiative signifies the effort of the Hu Jintao administration to re-chart the course of development in the mainland. If followed through, it could mean the beginning of a neo-reform era. Little wonder, then, that the new initiative immediately drew criticism.
Wu Jinglian, a long-time economic adviser to the central government, called it the wrong medicine for China's rural poor. It reflected, he said, the resurgence of the ideological left.
Although the central government has never admitted its acceptance of capitalism, socialism today is widely seen as merely a facade for the actual practice of capitalism by many in the mainland. Some, especially the believers in true laissez-faire capitalism, have hoped privately that the socialist element in government policies would eventually fade away. So they were caught off guard by the return to socialism in the policy initiative - whether it was just rhetoric or something more substantial. A mood of yearning to return to socialism has been intensifying in recent years. Millions of people have joined tours around China to retrace the footsteps of the early days of the Communist Party - ironically, a party that represented the suppression of peasants and workers.
The number of people visiting historical sites has increased 15 per cent a year over the past three years. The nostalgia for the past is a clear sign of resentment towards the present, in which the newly rich are the allies of the party.
As economic reform nears the end of its third decade, those who have been left behind by rapid economic growth - including the urban and rural poor, the unskilled, the less-educated and the middle-aged - look to the past for signs of liberation. Only there can they find the ideals of equality, justice and job security that are the basis of government legitimacy.
So the new socialist countryside initiative is not only a response to the long-neglected rural poor, but is also meant to reassure and appease those most likely to tilt towards social unrest.
Sensing the change of mood in society, government officials have turned for ideas to sociologists, social workers and experts in social policies and public administration.
Economists can no longer help the government resolve tough problems, said one Beijing official. And the market cannot alleviate mounting social and economic pressures as quickly as expected.
In short, there are good reasons for the resurgence of the alleged ideological left. Serious income disparities and social injustice are powerful forces that gave rise to the recent policy adjustment. They are also some of the side effects of three decades of rapid marketisation.
A neo-reform era, promising to address the problems of social inequality, could be the dawn of an age of rational and wise policy-making.
(Originally appeared in the March 13, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)