China's premier notes public 'resentment'

AFP , Saturday 5 Mar 2011

China's premier acknowledges wide-spread public discontent as state media warns citizens to ignore calls for protest

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China, Saturday, 5 March 2011. (AP)

China's state media on Saturday warned citizens to ignore calls for weekend anti-government rallies in major cities, saying that similar protests across the Middle East had created "chaos".

The message -- carried by the Beijing Daily, a mouthpiece of the city government -- came as Premier Wen Jiabao noted the public's "great resentment" over a number of issues in his speech to open the annual parliamentary session.

In a "state of the nation" speech opening the annual 10-day session of the nation's rubber-stamp parliament, Wen admitted his government had "not yet fundamentally solved a number of issues that the masses feel strongly about."

These included high consumer and housing prices, "significant problems concerning food safety and rampant corruption", and people being illegally kicked off their land to make way for unrestrained property development.

China will "effectively solve problems that cause great resentment among the masses," Wen told nearly 3,000 delegates at the National People's Congress (NPC) in a two-hour address at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.

"We must therefore have a strong sense of responsibility toward the country and the people and work tirelessly and painstakingly to solve these problems more quickly to the satisfaction of the people," he said.

The NPC convened amid an increase in tension after a similar mix of issues helped spark unrest across the Arab world.

Topping the agenda is inflation and Wen pledged the communist leadership would step up its fight to contain rising prices of food, housing and other essentials, warning the problem "affects social stability".

"We must therefore make it our top priority in macroeconomic control to keep overall price levels stable," he said, reiterating the government's 2011 inflation target of around four percent.

Inflation has remained stubbornly high -- 4.9 percent in January -- despite a series of policy steps including three interest rate hikes in recent months.

The consumer price index rose by a more than two-year high of 5.1 percent in November. Inflation has a history of sparking unrest in China, with its hundreds of millions of poor farmers and low-paid workers scraping to get by.

Quick price jumps in the second half of 2010 will "likely have a significant carry-over effect on prices in the first half of this year," warned China's top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission.

Wen indicated the government's macroeconomic offensive would continue, saying: "We will implement a prudent monetary policy."

Decades of blistering export-dependent growth have made China's economy the second-largest in the world.

But China has struggled to spread the wealth evenly among its 1.3 billion population and Wen referred repeatedly to that issue in his speech, lamenting the country's "large income gap".

Beijing now wants to follow a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly path under a revamped economic growth blueprint for 2011-2015 which calls for more balanced development that leaves fewer people behind.

The premier noted China's annual eight percent economic growth target for 2011 -- considered the minimum required to keep the economy growing fast enough to stave off social unrest.

That goal is routinely surpassed each year. Last year, the economy grew 10.3 percent.

But Wen also reiterated a pledge made last Sunday that China would aim for a less frenetic seven percent annual growth under the new five-year plan.

He pledged to create 45 million urban jobs over the next five years, "reduce the number of people living in poverty," increase incomes, raise minimum wages and basic pensions and hike the individual income tax threshold.

"We will continue to increase government spending used to help expand consumption, and increase subsidies to low-income urban residents and farmers," he said.

And Wen repeated government promises to curb property speculation, which is blamed for surging prices, and ensure a supply of low-income housing.

The government will work to "genuinely stabilise house prices and meet the reasonable demands of residents for housing," he said.

The urgency of appeasing disgruntled constituencies came into focus in the past two weeks with mysterious Internet calls for weekly Sunday "strolling" rallies in major Chinese cities.

They have largely fizzled under smothering security but the heavy police response revealed official concern over public dissatisfaction.

A mix of similar hot-button issues -- combined with a lack of democracy -- sparked popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.

China's powerless parliament approves whatever is submitted by the ruling Communist Party, which uses the annual session to outline its concerns and the overall policy direction for each year.

Authorities in China have shown increasing nervousness about the Internet's power to mobilise ordinary citizens in the wake of unrest in the Arab world, and the subsequent online call for anti-government "Jasmine" rallies at home.

"This turmoil has brought a massive calamity to the people of these countries," the Beijing Daily said in a commentary.

"It is worth noting that at home and abroad some people with ulterior motives are trying to draw this chaos into China. They have used the Internet to incite illegal gatherings," it said.

Citizens have been urged to gather for subtle "strolling" demonstrations -- but take no overt protest action -- each Sunday afternoon at designated locations in cities across China to highlight public anger with the government.

The anonymous campaigners behind the so-called "Jasmine rallies" have said their movement has support in dozens of cities, though security have turned out in force at the rally sites in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent such gatherings.

On February 27, several foreign journalists were roughed up in a popular shopping area of Beijing, and police have since threatened reporters that they could lose their permission to work in China unless they follow new rules.

As the United States, the European Union and rights groups have criticised the treatment of foreign journalists and called for an explanation, state media on Thursday accused those same reporters of "fabricating news".

The Beijing Daily urged citizens to "conscientiously protect harmony and stability" rather than allow a small group of people both at home and abroad to "exploit the problems existing in our development to provoke trouble".

"Everyone knows that stability is a blessing and chaos is a calamity," the newspaper said.

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