The five year Chinese Communist Party Congress, taking place over 5 days, was opened by President Hu Jintao. While the event is carefully orchestrated it is refreshing to note self criticism which one would hardly expect from US or European political leaders. Hu drew attention in particular to the problems of corruption and local governance, many of which have been reported in the international media, such as the conviction of the head of the Agriculture and Food Ministry earlier this year. Other themes were Promoting ‘social harmony’, ‘Scientific development’, and Building a ‘well-off society’. The pragmatic approach of China’s government will continue to yield dividends and underpin stable, rapid economic growth.
As China prospers and expands its presence on the world stage, this offered an opportunity to reflect on political and social developments at home. While the general commentary is positive, critics highlight the differences in style between China’s approach to development and the text-book model of western perception. While we should be aware of this bias, some of the social and political dislocations are widening enough to threaten stability and even economic development. The kind of inequalities are not so different from those seen in developed economies, but in China the expectation of equality is built in to the political system.
While the objective of refocusing development on the countryside, on inland provinces and sustainability are appropriate, this is not easy. It is made more difficult by the growing dispersion of power, principally through economic wealth in the coastal provinces. This is compounded by the falling away of social infrastructure that used to provide a ground floor for the poor, such as public housing, which has been cleared from Beijing (and other cities) to make way for middle income housing or public infrastructure (eg Olympic housing) and the evaporation of rural education and health care infrastructure. (These articles from The Economist offer food for thought: China, beware and Missing the barefoot doctors.)
Looking to the future, as in all systems, openness offers the way to manage complex and diverse aims. Moving from a system of closed thought and action (China 30 years ago, Europe in the middle ages) to an open system has not yet been achieved on a national scale, but that is where China must head. The difficulty is always liberating thought and action while raising ethical standards. (The saddest example of this challenge is offered by wealthy America which retains capital punishment, incarcerates minors and has curtailed civil liberties in the past 5 years.)
While China will continue to be a wonderful example of stable growth and enlightenment, the tension for volatility and social explosions will be difficult t0 manage. Look to the recent history of industrial action in the UK in the 1970s or the civil rights movement of the US for illustrations of the confrontations that are to be expected.
China’s Supreme Court has ordered judges to be more sparing in the imposition of the death penalty, ordering that execution should be reserved for “an extremely small number of serious offenders”. The Supreme Court said murders triggered by family disputes should not always result in the death penalty and the death penalty should be withheld in certain cases of crimes of passion or economic crimes where the offender’s payment of compensation should be taken into account. The Supreme Court continues to back capital punishment as a deterrent.
This is a welcome initiative. While culture, history and the challenge of managing over a billion people hinder its abolition now, at China’s current rate of emergence, it may abolish use of the death penalty before America.
The most high-profile execution this year was of the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, for taking 6.5 million yuan ($860,000) in bribes and for dereliction of duty. In 2005, an estimated 1,770 executions were carried out and nearly 4,000 people were sentenced to death, human rights group Amnesty International says.
Some more info: China is believed to execute more people than rest of the world combined; Amnesty International says China carried out two-thirds of the world’s executions last year, but China says it expects a 10-year low this year. Non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and embezzlement carry death penalty. Other crimes that carry the death penalty include murder, rape, robbery and drug offences. China does not yet publish official figures on executions. Observers say that many cases are based on confessions and trials often take less than a day.