China outlines its social, political challenges

Government softens warnings to Taiwan

March 06, 2005|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEIJING - In a flurry of policy pronouncements, China's government slightly softened the language of its warnings to Taiwan and laid out some of the major challenges facing the world's most populous nation as it develops into a global economic powerhouse.

The accomplishments have been "outstanding," Premier Wen Jiabao said in a major address yesterday, but the growing gap in lifestyle between increasingly affluent city dwellers and long-suffering peasants and the unemployed has become a larger worry.

"Some low-income people lead difficult lives, and there are more than a few factors threatening social stability," Wen warned in unusually stark terms.

In the past few years, the number of riots, strikes and confrontations among aggrieved Chinese has increased drastically. The incidents have involved laid-off workers being cheated of severance pay, farmers angry over high taxes or losing land to development, and ethnic tensions.

The government uses its massive security apparatus to quash all outbreaks of violence, and there are no signs of a viable challenge arising to confront the Communist Party's authority. But Wen's warning highlighted that China is only partway along in its transformation from a closed, Communist society to a globalized one based on the free-enterprise system.

One of the new themes Wen laid out in his address is the goal of building a "harmonious society," a campaign-style promise suggesting that the government acknowledges some of the political tensions.

Wen spoke yesterday morning at the opening of the National People's Congress, the rubber-stamp assembly that meets once a year for 10 days to approve legislation and policy plans laid out by the Communist Party. A bit more debate has taken place at the gathering in recent years, but the meeting is mainly political theater.

One of the most closely watched issues at this year's congress is Taiwan. The gathering will approve a specific "anti-secession law" that in its most extreme version could require that China attack Taiwan if the island were to declare independence.

Because the law's wording has not been disclosed, it is not clear whether its creation represents merely a new form of political rhetoric or if it will contain wording that would raise the potential for military conflict.

A Chinese government spokesman, Jiang Enzhu, said it was not a "law on the use of force against Taiwan" nor a "war mobilization order." He described it as law to clarify China's policy toward Taiwan and said it would refer in part to trade.

In comments made on the sidelines of the congress, President Hu Jintao accused Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, of pursuing "creeping independence" and warned that China will "never tolerate Taiwan independence."

China frequently resorts to fiery rhetoric and threats of war against Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province that must eventually return to Beijing's control, so it was significant that Hu was not quoted as making any new threats against the island. Instead, Hu also pointed out that there had been "certain signs of relaxation" and some "new and positive factors."

China and Taiwan split at the end of the 1949 civil war, and Taiwan has developed over the decades into a distinct, Western-style democracy. Chen has vowed not to declare official independence, but his outspoken support for a separate Taiwanese identity has infuriated China.

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