Chinese leader calls for restraints on growth, inflation, corruption, dissent

March 10, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- In his annual report to China's weak legislature today, Premier Li Peng called for keeping the lid on here -- on rocketing economic growth, rising inflation, rampant corruption and persistent political dissent.

Mr. Li said China should slow down its economic growth from a torrid rate of more than 13 percent during each of the last two years to just 9 percent, a rate that still would be the envy of the developed world.

He also backed retaining some price controls, agricultural subsidies and state-industry supports, measures that would scale down China's heated march toward a market economy. But Beijing has lost much of its power over the country's richest regions, and it still lacks sophisticated economic controls. It may not be able to significantly dampen the nation's economic boom without risking a crash in many areas.

To a large degree, Chinese leaders are trying to slow growth as a defense against what they consider to be mounting threats to China's "social stability," the Communist Party's oft-used code for maintaining its exclusive hold on power.

These threats come from many directions, but all relate to the rapid economic changes here. So Beijing walks a balance beam: forging ahead with some reforms while desperately trying to contain their effects.

This is the party's central task, Mr. Li said: "We must make sure [to] correctly handle the relations between reform, development and stability."

But inflation has spiked to more than 20 percent a year in major cities. Official corruption has grown widespread and flagrant. Failing state industries have begun large-scale layoffs, while millions of surplus farmers have flooded China's cities in search of work.

Just as during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, these conditions are particularly ripe for potential use by political dissidents as the basis for independently organizing disgruntled workers -- one of the party's greatest fears.

"Corruption directly infringes on the basic freedom and rights of the worker," declares a document circulated in Beijing this week by dissidents. "The corrupted embezzle from capital funds and that is the workers' sweat and toil."

Yesterday, activists applied for permission from the government to form a private group to protect workers from exploitation -- a bold act given the detentions of dissidents in Beijing and Shanghai during the past week.

A founder of the group, lawyer Yuan Hongbing, was detained last week and has not been released.

China's last independent labor organization was one of the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Its main leader, Han Dongfang, has been exiled.

In his speech to nearly 3,000 delegates at the opening of the 13-day meeting of the National People's Congress, Mr. Li also attacked corruption. "To carry on the struggle against corruption . . . is a matter of life and death for the nation," he said.

Mr. Li did not signal a letup in the harassing of dissidents, which has led to sharp exchanges with U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who arrives tomorrow looking for enough progress on human rights to justify the renewal of China's favorable U.S. trade status.

Mr. Christopher likely will not meet China's best known dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who last week told a U.S. human rights envoy to keep pressing China on human rights. Mr. Wei, who served more than 14 years in jail until his release last fall, left Beijing over the weekend after a day of detention, his secretary said.

Despite the conflict over human rights, a spokesman for the Chinese legislature said yesterday that China hopes Mr. Christopher's visit will "increase mutual trust, reduce troubles, expand cooperation and avoid confrontation" with the United States.

But in Australia yesterday, Mr. Christopher reiterated his criticism of China's treatment of dissent.

Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans also said that China is moving "the wrong way" on human rights but that the United States should not link trade with human rights -- particularly noting the potential damage to Hong Kong.

With huge banners, potted plants and a lineup of aged leaders decorating its opening day, the legislature is a former rubber-stamp body that recently has shown just enough independence to make leaders jittery during its annual meetings.

In an open letter to the legislature, Tiananmen protest leader Wang Dan last night called on the congress to discuss human rights, without challenging the government. It's a call the body likely won't answer.

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