Wen Jiabao Weighs In

Stephen DeAngelis

March 09, 2007

China’s Premier to the National People’s Congress, Wen Jiabao, recently delivered the equivalent of a state-of-the-union address. With China consuming so much of the world’s resources as it continues to develop, the world listens pretty intently to what China’s leaders say. Wen’s speech (like Bush’s state-of-the-union message in January) was primarily addressed to a domestic audience, but it nevertheless sends signals to the international community as well. One unsurprising message was that the Communist Party plans on remaining in charge. The Financial TimesObserver” column commented on this aspect of the Premier’s speech [5 March 2007].

“The Chinese economy may be racing into the 21st century, but the political system remains another beast altogether. The dense, 35 page-long speech delivered by Wen Jiabao, the premier, to the National People’s Congress on Monday was full of both paeans to past Communist leaders and the power of the capitalist marketplace, with nods along the way to both the benefits of Chinese tradition and the need to catch up to the west. Observer’s man in Beijing was particularly taken by what Wen said was the party’s ‘conclusion,’ reached after much ‘practical’ experience. ‘We must free our minds, follow a realistic and practical approach, keep pace with the times, work hard with a pioneering and innovative spirit, unswervingly take the road of Chinese socialism, adhere to the reform and opening-up policy, pursue development according to scientific principles, maintain social harmony and ensure peaceful development.’ Only then, he said, could China achieve its objective of modernisation. Translated, we think that means pretty much anything goes, policy-wise, as long as the Communist party retains full control of the political system.”

Few, if any, analysts predict that the communist party will voluntarily loosen its reins of power. But Wen’s speech all but admits that those reins are looser than many believe. For example, his admission that policy must be practical is a clear sign that economics is racing ahead of the government’s ability to keep pace. Wen’s pragmatism, however, is a good thing because it recognizes that China must play by the same rules as other international powers. Many of those international rules can help Chinese policy makers adapt to changing circumstances because they were generated as other developing countries coped with the challenges China now faces. That’s what using best practices is all about. Another portion of Wen’s speech that demonstrated Beijing’s span of control is not as strong as it might desire was his focus on trying to bring regional politicians into line with national policies. Richard McGregor, reporting for the Financial Times from Beijing, focuses specifically on green policies [“China to push green cause at local level,” 5 March 2007]. McGregor writes:

“China will increase pressure on local governments and enterprises to cut pollution and raise energy efficiency, Wen Jiabao, the premier, said on Monday, after the failure to meet benchmarks set last year in both areas. In his annual report to the National People’s Congress, the country’s top law-making body, Mr Wen said ‘many backward production facilities’ had not been shut as planned and local governments and enterprises had failed to comply with laws. His sharp rhetoric reflects a recognition by Beijing that worsening energy efficiency and rising pollution are becoming significant domestic and international political problems for China.”

Leaders in Beijing are learning what former Massachusetts representative and Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, was famous for saying, “All politics is local.” Closing old plants or changing old ways generally means job losses for someone’s constituents. Local politicians always want those job losses to be someone other than their localities. But China’s energy consumption is not just a local or national problem. McGregor writes:

“According to the International Energy Agency, China is expected to become the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2009, based on present consumption patterns, a position that will put it at the centre of the climate change debate. In addition, China’s surge of investment in heavy, polluting industries in the past five years has coincided with a jump in energy prices and rising demand from citizens for cleaner air and water. Investment in heavy industry has also been a big driver in the expansion of the power industry, which added new capacity last year equal to about twice the installed base of California, 90 per cent of it coal-fired.”

China has lots of coal, but, even as coal goes, it’s not a very clean variety. Faced with pressure to keep development on track, China’s leaders should be commended for trying to use cleaner fuels and keep emissions down. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.

“Mr Wen confirmed that a target in the last five-year plan to cut energy consumption per unit of output by 4 per cent a year and reduce the discharge of big pollutants by 2 per cent was not met last year. ‘The targets [over the five years to 2010] cannot be revised so we should work resolutely to implement them,’ he said.”

Beijing leaders wrestle with the same challenges faced by Washington — how do you foster economic growth without destroying environmental conditions? It has been difficult for politicians in both countries (and elsewhere) to find a proper balance. The rest of the world waits with bated breath for them to find a suitable accommodation — one with which we can all live. If the U.S., China, Russia, and India can sit down with the rest of developing world and work out a Kyoto-like accord to which they all sign up, we’ll all be better off. The fact that internal Chinese politics are becoming more transparent and that transnational as well as national issues are being discussed is a welcome sign.