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Recent China research
|China Weekly: A China case study: Bottled water adds to food safety problems, 14 May 2013|
|China Weekly: China’s White Goods: Survival of the biggest, 9 May 2013|
|China’s grain seeds sector gets a boost but openings for foreign companies will be limited, Fergus Naughton, 9 May 2013|
|China Report Update: Food safety, 8 May 2013|
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Reading China’s censors
China’s censors have been working overtime this month during the annual meeting of the legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC). Their warnings to the media provide an insight into leadership concerns, starting with an instruction to websites “Do not conduct interviews concerning or report on any sudden incidents.”
The imbroglio in Chongqing about Bo Xilai and the former police chief Wang Lijun which we discussed in an earlier posting on this blog, is not be “hyped”. “Do not cast doubt on medical reform, the construction of guaranteed housing, food safety or other problems,” the instructions as monitored by the China Digital Times go on. “Do not report on petitioners” – the thousands of people who trek to Beijing to try to get a hearing for their complaints after being rejected by local authorities but often find themselves locked up in “black jails” before being shipped back home.
On the other hand, the media are told to “Increase the intensity of propaganda about Lei Feng”, the Mao-era model worker who some suspect did not exist or who, if he was a real person, did not spend 24 hours a day instructing his fellow citizens in the wisdom of the Great Helmsman.
It is easy to mock all this, but even the censors sometimes unwittingly reveal areas where debate is going on. Thus after issuing the instruction not to cast doubt on medical reform or social housing, another order came for the media not to make too much of what is being done in those areas. This ambivalence – celebrating planned progress but worrying about putting the plans into force – is very much in line with the current mood in Beijing. As the leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping told cadres last year, the problem is implementation.
Then there is the ongoing reform debate. On the one hand, the urge to maintain stability is as a strong as ever: the size of the internal security budget presented to the NPC has increased yet again. But the reformist noises that I analysed in a recent research note are unmistakable. Although the outcome of the Bo Xilai saga remains uncertain, he appears to have suffered a distinct setback – playing a far lower-profile role at the NPC than in previous years – and, with him, the populist-conservative-statist cause faces a less certain future. On the other hand, Party Secretary Wang Yang continues to speak of change in his province of Guangdong, and sources say that the prospective next premier, Li Keqiang, is behind him as the Hu Jintao group lines up ahead of the Party Congress later in the year.
As for Xi Jinping, the probability is that he is keeping his powder dry, waiting to see how the debate plays out and to assess both the strength of the problems facing China and the strength of the “vested interests” that oppose change. This is a long-term game with many moving parts, all of which need to be taken into account. For all its success, China is still feeling its way, and quick-fire prescriptions should carry little weight.
In my next blog posting, I will look at the main themes coming out of the NPC and what they tell us about the leadership’s concerns and priorities.