The government introduces the country’s new mantra
At the end of the ten-day meeting, Mr Wen told journalists that his remaining two years in office would be “no easier” than the preceding eight. Keeping the “tiger” of inflation in its cage would be hard enough, he said (the NPC approved a target of 4% this year, compared with inflation of nearly 5% in February). But corruption was the “greatest danger”. A few days before the session began, the railways minister, Liu Zhijun, had been dismissed in connection with a huge bribe-taking scandal.
The five-year plan called for 7% annual average growth in GDP between now and 2015, compared with a far-exceeded target of 7.5% set in 2006-10. Mr Wen said lowering growth without raising unemployment would be an “extremely big test”. But, he said, China had to change its pattern of economic growth, because it was (using a hallmark phrase) “unbalanced, unco-ordinated and unsustainable”.
The idea of promoting happiness spread over the country like a huge grin early this year when provincial governments began laying out their own five-year plans. Guangdong province declared it would become “happy Guangdong”. Beijing (which is a province-level administration) said it wanted its citizens to lead “happy and glorious lives”. Chongqing municipality, another province-level area, said it wanted its people to be among the happiest in the country. Officials now often talk of setting up “happiness indices” by which government performance should be judged.
The word’s popularity among bureaucrats is more an attempt to please leaders in Beijing and show sympathy for the less well-off than a sign of any real determination to change their ways. Many lower-level governments have continued to set investment-driven GDP-growth targets that are far higher than Mr Wen’s. Some of his goals, such as building another 36m subsidised homes by 2015, will require the co-operation of local governments. They are adept at evading such tasks.
Mr Wen does not see political freedom as having much to do with happiness. In August last year he raised hopes among some liberal-minded intellectuals when he made a flurry of statements about the importance of political reform. Since then, the repression of dissidents has been stepped up. Dozens have been rounded up or put under surveillance in order to prevent them from responding to anonymous internet-circulated calls for an Arab-style “jasmine revolution” in China. To deter any protests, police security during the NPC was even heavier than usual.
At his press conference, Mr Wen repeated some of the language he had used last August on the need for political reform. This included a warning that China’s economic gains could be wiped out if the country failed to reform politically. He also said people needed to be able to “criticise and supervise” the government. But he offered no guide to how this should happen, and stressed the need for change to be “gradual”, “orderly” and “under the leadership of the party”. He said it would be wrong to draw comparison between the situations in the Middle East and north Africa and that of China.
The NPC’s chairman, Wu Bangguo, went further, telling delegates that the country faced an “abyss of internal disorder” if it strayed from the “correct political orientation”. He also declared China had achieved its goal of setting up a “socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics”. The Communist Party said in 1997 that it would do this by 2010, but never made it clear how progress would be assessed. China’s struggling band of independent lawyers, who are often spurned by courts and harassed by police for trying to defend victims of official wrongdoing, are probably not celebrating.