China Hides Change

March 09, 1995

The 2,997 delegates to China's National People's Congress are not a democratic parliament, though Qiao Shi, running the annual show, wants to move it in that direction to bolster his own political future. They have come to rubber-stamp 15 laws, and will do so with all or most of them.

But the ritual speeches tell much about China and its direction. Conservatives, meaning orthodox Communists, are in charge. They mean to loosen the economy while tightening political controls. They are approaching the post-Deng Xiaoping era as if nothing will change.

"It is necessary to adhere over a long period of time to the principle of plain living and hard struggle and of building up the country with industry and thrift," Premier Li Peng told the delegates in his annual government work report. That sounds like almost any platitude from the Mao Tse-tung period, but Mao would not recognize the place.

Mr. Li forecast an economy "cooling" to 8 or 9 percent annual growth (beyond the dreams of most countries) from the 11.8 percent of 1994. But simultaneously, the director of the state economic and trade commission, Wang Zhongyu, admitted that one-third of state-owned firms were money-losers last year, and 15 percent have suspended all or some production, putting 20 million workers on emergency welfare or floating to distant cities, along with the 40 million dispossessed farmers cited by Chinese media. That is destabilization similar to Eastern Europe's when throwing off communism, which China says it is not doing.

China went $14 billion in deficit in 1994, Finance Minister Liu Zhongli told the delegates, swelling its state debt by more than 30 percent. So vigorous is growth that Shandong province will ask foreign and domestic firms to bid to operate two expressways, which is hardly communism.

Military spending will increase 21 percent, the fastest-growing part of the $75.7 billion state budget that Mr. Liu unveiled. With the Soviet Union and the United States reducing military establishments, this is ominous for China's neighbors and the peace of the region. It is not the long Russian border that attracts this attention, but the dispute with neighbors over the Spratly Islands and adjoining seabed, and a desire to reassert historic Chinese pre-eminence or hegemony in East Asia.

Before it ends, this mock legislature will have strengthened or diminished the grip of President Jiang Zemin as Mr. Deng's chosen successor. There is more free speech in the National People's Congress these days, though the attempt of dissidents to appeal to it was doomed. China is a massive country in a great transition, trying to convince itself that stability reigns.

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