– Policy change unlikely during the 17th National Congress
– The gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, producing increased unrest in rural villages
– China’s policy toward Taiwan will most probably not change amid talks of a ‘peace agreement’
On October 15, 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered the opening address at the ruling Communist Party’s 17th National Congress. President Hu spoke in broad terms and typical Chinese rhetoric about the importance of a ‘harmonious society,’ along with social and political developments. While President Hu admonished his party for falling short of the people’s expectations, it does not appear likely that China’s policies will change significantly in the near-term.
The weeklong meeting, held once every five years, is the most important political event in China. President Hu will almost certainly receive another five-year term during the Congress, which is also expected to determine a successor to take over for him in 2012.
As the Chinese leaders called for a ‘harmonious society’ at this week’s Congress, the gap continues to grow between those who have profited from China’s economic boom and those who have been left behind. China’s middle class has continued to gain power both economically and politically, while the poorer villages and farmers are dispersed, less organized and easily ignored by the government.
President Hu has set aside billions of dollars in new farm subsidies, increased spending on social security, education, and health care, but his policies have done little to ease the social tensions.
In the weeks leading up to the Congress, the government suppressed any potential political dissidence, shutting down more than eighteen thousand websites and sealing off a ‘petitioners village’ (so-called because thousands live in the ramshackle buildings while waiting to raise grievances with the government) in southern Beijing.
President Hu’s speech deviated from the usual Chinese policy toward Taiwan, when he offered peace talks with the island. He stated, “On the basis of the one-China principle, let us discuss a formal end to the state of hostility between the two sides to reach a peace agreement.”
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and recently tensions have intensified as Taiwan applied for membership to the United Nations (UN) and displayed new missiles during a recent National Day celebration.
However, President Hu’s comments are unlikely to bring about a significant change in China’s policy toward Taiwan. The recent promotion of senior military officers with experience in planning for war over Taiwan is a subtler sign of China’s continued disapproval of steps Taiwan may take towards independence.
More of the Same
The Congress, like President Hu’s opening speech, will likely be tightly scripted with no significant changes from policies created at the 16th Congress. Additionally, any criticism from the 2,217 delegates attending the meeting is doubtful and little, if any, steps will be taken to make China more democratic.
The only surprise will be the appointment of a successor for President Hu in 2012. Xi Jinping, the party boss of Shanghai, as well as Li Keqiang, the party chief of Liaoning Province, have both been mentioned in Chinese media; however, Xi Jinping is reportedly closer to former President Jiang Zemin.
Regardless, China will do its best in the next year to impress the world before the momentous 2008 Olympics in Beijing. President Hu will likely continue to try to meet rising expectations for better living standards and his harmonious society; however, party leadership is undoubtedly afraid an increase in political openness will result in massive protests from the underprivileged.