China’s representatives come bearing bad news

/ Source: The Associated Press

Huge but largely powerless, the Chinese parliament’s main advisory body is a gaggle of businessmen, farmers, movie stars and Tibetan monks meant to keep Chinese leaders in touch with what’s going on in the nation’s far-flung regions.

This year, as it begins its annual two-week session on Friday, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference could find itself with a new role: messenger.

Communist leaders want to reassure a frustrated public that they are taking action in response to growing anger over poverty and corruption — and they might use the CPPCC members to convey that message to the countryside.

“I will not be surprised if I see a more aggressive use of the CPPCC as an instrument to pacify the discontented rural population,” said Steve Tsang, director of the Asian Studies Center at St. Antony’s College at Britain’s Oxford University.

In recent years, the CPPCC has been a way for communist leaders to keep up with a fast-changing society amid capitalist-style economic change, although it has little power over policymaking.

It is made up of the state-controlled umbrella groups for China’s businesses, religious bodies, official labor unions, academics, women’s associations and other noncommunist groups.

From movie stars to monks
Delegates have included actress Gong Li, who recently starred in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who was appointed in a move widely seen as a face-saving way for the unpopular Hong Kong leader to resign from his post.

The group’s meeting opens Friday, two days before the National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial legislature. More than 2,200 members are expected to attend.

CPPCC representatives have indicated that their meeting will be dominated by talk of rural problems, along with health care reform, low-income housing and the plight of migrant workers.

The government is promising to spend more on schools, health care and the countryside, where some 800 million people still get by on only a few hundred dollars a year despite the nation’s surging economy.

President Hu Jintao and other leaders have repeatedly assured the public that easing rural hardship is a top priority as simmering unhappiness over corruption, land seizures and a widening income gap boils over in bloody clashes between farmers and local authorities.

Rural unrest on the rise
According to government figures, the number of cases of public disorder in China last year jumped to 87,000 in a country where mobs gather and violence can escalate at an alarming speed.

The most striking incident occurred in December, when police opened fire on villagers protesting land seizures in the southern town of Dongzhou. At least three people were killed, although residents put the death toll as high as 20.

Demonstrations where villagers overturn official vehicles and smash windows of government buildings are also common. Authorities often fight back using clubs and stun guns, or hire thugs to settle disputes, a common practice by Chinese officials.

State television on Wednesday showed CPPCC representatives arriving in Beijing, streaming from trains from all over the country.

“The party’s central committee has put forward suggestions for building a new countryside,” Wang Chaobin was quoted as saying. “I am very happy about that because Henan is a big farming province.”

Delegate Lin Jialai, an economist from Fujian province in the south, called rural problems “hot social issues.”

“These are issues that people are concerned about,” Lin said. “There will be proposals on how to deal with farmers who have lost their land and how to use social insurance to solve this problem.”

He said farmers should have better medical care, job training and housing.

“A preferential policy should be recommended,” Lin said. “Farmers should have the same pay as people in the cities.”