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Handing out social justice to the masses

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

Around 200 million farmers are without work or severely unemployed
Around 200 million farmers are without work or severely unemployed

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(CNN) -- The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can retain its ruling status without introducing democracy -- but it has to give Chinese a decent level of social justice.

This philosophy will inform much of the policies to be implemented in the first years of the administration of party General Secretary Hu Jintao.

Hu, together with Politburo members elected at last November's 16th Party Congress such as premier-designate Wen Jiabao, has vowed to do something about phenomena such as the polarization between rich and poor and the erosion of working-class rights.

And there is a consensus among the leadership that the dire straits of marginalized sectors such as jobless peasants could tear asunder the CCP's fragile mandate of heaven.

Almost from day one, the Hu Politburo has indicated its commitment to a new deal for farmers and workers, the CCP's traditional pillars of support.

Since the 16th Congress, Hu has made well-publicized trips to impoverished areas in Hebei and Inner Mongolia Provinces, while Wen, deemed a Hu ally, has toured the backwater regions of Guizhou and Shanxi.

Wealth gap

While inspecting Inner Mongolia last week, Hu told local cadres "we must ceaselessly safeguard, promote and develop the interests of the masses."

The party chief pledged that funds Beijing had earmarked for bailing out needy families must be paid out promptly and without fail.

In a series of Politburo meetings devoted to redressing the wealth gap, the Hu leadership has pointed out Beijing will introduce a "sliding" or favorable policy in allocating resources so as to resuscitate agriculture and help farmers, 200 million of whom are jobless or severely unemployed.

A statement issued by the Politburo late last month said the party's "topmost priority is to show more concern for farmers and to support agriculture."

More important than promises of more central-level attention and funds is the Hu team's apparent readiness to give the so-called under-classes a measure of equality and dignity through promoting gongyi, or social justice.

As pointed out in a commentary in the liberal paper Southern Weekend last week, the objective of bringing about a well-off society -- a main theme of the 16th Congress -- must be accompanied by improvement in social justice.

"Social policy must be adjusted to favor disadvantaged groupings in order to maintain social harmony," the paper said.

Brink of poverty

Hu has made well-publicized trips to impoverished areas
Hu has made well-publicized trips to impoverished areas

Inherent in the gongyi ideal is the concept of fairness and dignity, which seems to underpin a series of recent initiatives.

Last month, the State Council decided not to go ahead with a planned salary raise for the country's 34 million civil servants.

This is largely due to the perception that it would be unfair to grant relatively well-paid civil servants a fourth pay rise in as many years when millions are hovering on the brink of poverty.

After all, the three recent pay hikes cost Beijing some 307 billion yuan, about the size of the estimated budget deficit this year.

Of more symbolic significance were first steps taken to recognize the legal and political status of migrant laborers, who are often treated as second-class citizens.

Last month, Zhu Lifei, a 27-year-old worker from the provinces made history when she was elected a member of the municipal parliament in the city of Yiwu in coastal Zhejiang Province.

In a commentary, the Xinhua news agency called on more regional authorities to "give migrant laborers their due recognition [in society]."

While Yiwu is host to nearly 600,000 work hands from the central and western provinces, the latter had always been denied opportunities to stand for political office.

A major thrust of the new leadership's agrarian policy is to end a half-century tradition of discrimination against peasants, who still account for at least 70 percent of the population.

Hu and Wen have decided to broaden experiments with the relaxation of the residence permit system, which was used by Chairman Mao Zedong to prevent farmers from moving to the cities.

Social security

A farmer rides a motorised ploughing machine in his rice field on the outskirts of Guangzhou
A farmer rides a motorised ploughing machine in his rice field on the outskirts of Guangzhou

The new Politburo has also given a bigger push to slashing rural taxes and levies in 20 provinces.

Equally important are efforts to extend the social security net from the cities to the villages. Until recently, only urban residents were entitled to government handouts, including subsistence-level subsidies for destitute families.

Zhejiang is lauded as a pacesetter for ending the decades-old practice of depriving peasants of state welfare.

In late 2001, the provincial leadership promulgated a regulation on the "lowest-level livelihood guarantee" for urban as well as rural residents.

The average "lowest-level income standard" for peasants is set at 104 yuan ($18.60) per person per month, meaning that if a farmer earns merely 50 yuan a month, he will receive a subsidy of 54 yuan from local authorities.

The big question on the mind of liberal intellectuals, however, is whether real gongyi for disadvantaged classes is achievable in the absence of political liberalization.

According to Shanghai University social scientist Zhu Xueqin, political reform is necessary to right social wrongs -- and to prevent the administration from slipping into a Latin American-style dictatorship.


"Social injustice could engender massive social instability," Zhu warned, adding that liberalization of the political structure must go hand in hand with market-oriented economic reforms.

Workers and farmers are denied basic civil liberties -- including those of holding strikes and forming unions -- for fear that the latter would cut into the CCP's monopoly on power.

For example, the party leadership still heeds late patriarch Deng Xiaoping's warnings in the mid-1980s that Beijing must prevent the "Polish disease" -- a reference to the Solidarity Movement -- from infecting Chinese laborers.

Just last week, two underground unionists in the northeastern city of Liaoyang were charged with subversion in an apparent attempt by Beijing to warn against Lunar New Year labor protests.

The same goes for peasants' freedom to organize unions to press for their rights -- including the ability to negotiate the government-fixed purchasing prices of farm produce.

According to exiled dissident Wang Juntao, who is doing research at Columbia University, mere "favorable government policies" cannot help upgrade the welfare or status of farmers.

Wang pointed out that rural laborers must have the right to form organizations to effectively lobby for their economic and political benefits.

With the National People's Congress coming up soon, liberal cadres and intellectuals in Beijing are putting pressure on the Hu administration to revise the state constitution in order to accommodate the just demands of China's long-suffering masses.

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