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Chongqing moves to address social livelihood issues

Chongqing plans to spend over 300 billion yuan ($44.28 billion USD) on “the ten people’s livelihood issues” (民生十条) over the next year and a half. Of this whopping amount of money, 130 billion yuan will be spent on “resolving rural residents who enter the city’s hukou status” and 70 billion yuan on public housing. Billions of yuan will be spent on increasing farmers’ incomes, micro-loans, health services, rural health care, school security and other programs. Also, notably, 5 billion yuan will be spent on education for “left behind” children. (See Xinhua’s article and chart for full breakdown).

Chongqing Vice-Mayor Huang Qifan explained that resolving livelihood issues was carrying out “scientific development”, guaranteeing equality, and promoting the Harmonious Society. Besides these government slogans, it would also promote consumption and help switch to a new mode of development. Also, with recognition that when solving livelihood issues one must address the “Three Agricultural Issues” (三农) and issues related to rural workers who permanently enter the cities, this program will also help coordinate development between urban and rural areas. In the long run, this plan will help give Chongqing a platform for stability and sustainable economic growth, according to Huang.

What is one to make of this news?

First, these policies spell out quite clearly that the Chongqing government is keenly aware of the need to address social justice problems at their root cause, and not just squash all dissent under the rubric of “stability trumps all”(稳定压倒一切). Since protests and instability continue to be areas of major concern, China will spend well over 514 billion yuan ($75.26 billion) in 2010 on upholding “maintaining stability” (维稳). According to the Asia Times, “…governments at all levels have also set up special teams. Special funds have been allocated to the job, and an accountability system has been established to hold officials responsible for incidents of unrest within their jurisdictions. Authorities have stepped up efforts to prosecute individuals deemed potential threats to social stability. “

However, many critics and commentators have noted that the underlying cause of most “instability” is social injustice, and merely increasing security and police expenditures is not a sustainable long-run solution to the instability problem. This Chongqing plan addresses this concern quite explicitly.

Second, it seems that Chongqing – as a directly-controlled municipality− has been given room to experiment with reforms to the “rural to urban” status of its residents. Reforms were started under former Party Secretary Wang Yang, and they seem to have been revved up under this plan. The Chongqing municipality, with a population over 30 million, is also in a unique position to try out these reforms, since it not only contains the booming mega-city of Chongqing, which saw GDP growth of 14.3 per cent in 2009, but also a large swath of rural farmland as well.

Third, one can’t help but wonder what political factors might be at work as well. The two and half year timeline roughly corresponds to when the Communist Party will hold its important 18th Party Congress in 2012 – in which a new Politburo Standing Committee will be chosen. At that point, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai will have largely rooted out the mafia and (a certain degree of) corruption in Chongqing in a high profile campaign last year, and many pressing issues for common people will have been improved (hopefully), with the implementation of this plan. If this is indeed the case, Bo will most likely enjoy a significant degree of public support, and the degree to which public opinion matters in being elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, he should be in a pretty good position. (Of course, this last point is mere speculation).

However, before one goes too far in praising Chongqing, it should be noted that the general trend of emphasizing livelihood issues has been a hallmark of the Hu/Wen administration, and at this year’s NPC in particular, Wen Jiabao stressed that “redressing injustice” and letting people live with dignity would be a main priorities. In other words, these priorities have also been set by the Party at the Central level. And, as is often the case in China, good policies suffer due to poor implementation, and that could be the case here too. Also, only migrant workers who meet certain qualifications will be allowed to get an urban hukou.

Nonetheless, despite the possible drawbacks, it seems like this plan is a good step in the right direction.
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