Outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao wrapped up a decade at the top on Tuesday with a pledge to clean up the country’s environment amid growing calls for social change, as spending on law enforcement once more topped Beijing’s military budget.
In his last policy speech to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), an annual gathering of handpicked delegates, Wen acknowledged that breakneck economic growth during his tenure had resulted in widespread environmental destruction, a widening gap between rich and poor, and endemic official corruption.
China’s new leadership under soon-to-be-sworn-in president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang is already besieged with mass unrest across the country, calls for political change and rights protection, and an increasingly outspoken public.
“Some of these problems have built up over time, while others have emerged in the course of economic and social development, and still others have been caused by inadequacies and weaknesses in our government work,” Wen told the nearly 3,000 delegates in a speech that lasted more than 90 minutes on Tuesday.
Xie Tian, professor of management at the University of South Carolina, said that China already had a good set of environmental legislation on the statute books.
“The problem is, they never get implemented,” Xie said. “The law enforcement and judiciary at a local level, whether because of a conflict of interests or corruption, can’t implement them.”
And according to Wu Yegang, a water resources expert at Connor Environmental Services in the United States, said the biggest challenge for the government came from recent news about the water table.
“The biggest development in China lately has been the seepage of pollution into the ground water,” Wu said.
“Large-scale contamination of the water table is a terrible thing that will harm future generations, and the whole world, because ground-water pollution is very hard to clean up, and hugely expensive, and takes a very long time.”
Rise in military spending
In his accompanying budget, which represents the direction to be steered by Xi and Li, Wen also announced a 10 percent rise in defense spending to U.S.$114 billion, compared with an eight percent boost in the domestic security budget to U.S.$124 billion from the previous year.
The news comes amid growing calls for Beijing to ratify a United Nations treaty on civil and political rights, to do away with the controversial “re-education through labor” system of administrative punishments.
“The re-education through labor system violates the Constitution and other laws,” said Beijing-based rights lawyer Wang Yajun.
“The sentences aren’t handed down by a court; they are a means for the police to deprive someone of their freedom…in some cases for up to four or five years,” he said.
Meanwhile, Beijing resident Ge Zhihui said the rise in domestic security spending in recent years showed how fearful the government was that it social stability was under threat across the country.
Ge, who has been locked up in unofficial detention centers known as “black jails” for complaining about the government, said the number of “petitioners” who try to raise a wide array of issues with government officials in China was still growing rapidly.
“Every time I get locked up in a black jail, it’s for at least 10 days, which costs them 30,000 yuan [U.S. $4,822] in expenses,” Ge said. “But they use my name to claim expenses for their wining and dining, and for all the buses they use to round up petitioners.”
“They are wasting public resources,” she said.
Beijing-based scholar Chen Yongmiao agreed.
“This so called stability maintenance funding doesn’t go on solving criminal cases or on crime prevention,” he said.
“It goes on keeping the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party’s grip on power.”
Part of the state security spending pays for the very visible security around such meetings as the NPC, which was guarded by hundreds of soldiers, police and plainclothes security officers.
Many of them were equipped with fire extinguishers and anti-explosive blankets; a grim reminder of a recent string of self-immolation protests both in Tibetan regions of China and among people forcibly evicted from their soon-to-be-demolished homes, often with scant notice or compensation.
In his first months in office, Xi has raised expectations for change, talking about the urgent need to stanch graft and adhere to laws rather than rule by untrammeled power.
However, experts say there has been no sign that the systemic changes that would make this possible are under way.
In Hong Kong, a group of demonstrators marched to Beijing’s representative office in the territory to call for a public reckoning with the 1989 military crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Tiananmen Square.
“The standing committee of the NPC is the highest authority in the country, so we are making use of their annual meeting to call on the Chinese government to face up to its responsibilities on human rights,” said Richard Tsoi, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance for the Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, which organized the protest.
The group called on the government to respond to a recent letter from the families of those who were killed or maimed during the bloodshed, which called for a public enquiry into the incident, as well as compensation for victims’ families.
Reported by Xin Yu and Shi Shan for RFA’s Mandarin service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.