Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

China plays down threat of protests

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao closes the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People (AP)

China has rejected any comparison between itself and the Middle East and north African countries where popular uprisings toppled autocrats.

Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference at the end of the country's annual legislative session that it is "not right to draw an analogy" between China and countries such as Tunisia and Egypt where leaders were forced out. Social stability in China, where there is a growing gap between rich and poor, is a big concern of the government.

The National People's Congress promised higher social spending, controls on inflation and measures to urgently close the divisive rich-poor gap, betting that rising living standards and better services will dampen growing public expectations for political change.

The emphasis comes as the government seems increasingly anxious about online calls of unknown origin urging Chinese to stage peaceful rallies every Sunday like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt.

Beijing has been smothering under ever-heavier security since the internet messages first appeared more than a month ago. No similar protests have emerged in China.

Mr Wen's comments came after the congress approved economic plans for the next five years that aim to empower consumers but rejected any hints of political reforms.

The Five-Year Plan to run through the end of 2015 calls for a shift from rapid economic growth to higher quality, more sustainable development with a greater emphasis on services and broader distribution of wealth. If carried out, the plan could drive a far-reaching transformation of the world's second-largest economy from low-cost factory into a major consumer market.

More consumer demand could help to boost imports, narrowing China's trade surplus with the United States and other major economies.

China also needs to shift money from companies to households, which could narrow the gulf between China's poor majority and its rich elite and fledgling middle class - who have profited from economic reform. The wide-ranging plan promises more rural health care spending and job help for out-of-work farmers - a step that could promote growth of service industries and consumption.

The nearly 3,000 members of the congress approved the economic plan after 10 days of meetings. The Five-Year Plan is a throwback to central planning but a useful roadmap of Communist Party goals.