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China’s parliament approves rural reform plan

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged Tuesday to press ahead with reform and opening up amid a heated debate over the pace of economic liberalization.
/ Source: Reuters

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged on Tuesday to press ahead with reform and opening up amid a heated debate over the pace of economic liberalization.

The parliament session has been marked by an unusual level of debate over the pace of economic liberalization not seen since the days of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reform and opening up policies that started more than two decades ago.

Against that background, Wen told a news conference: “To be resolute is to unwaveringly push forward reform and opening up and take a Socialist path with Chinese characteristics.

“There will be difficulties as we move ahead, but we cannot stop. Back-pedaling offers no way out.”

He made no mention of the debate.

Argument in the early 1990s was over whether to continue that policy of opening up. But Deng ended all debate, placing China firmly on the reform path with a “southern tour” to special economic zones in the southern province of Guangdong in 1992.

Debate over pace of liberalization
This year, the debate was not about whether China will reform but about the pace of liberalization, rising social inequality blamed by critics on the reforms, and complaints over foreign influence in the country’s economy.

The head of the National Bureau of Statistics, Li Deshui, told Reuters last week that foreigners had gained a strong foothold in the economy and that China should act to prevent more domestic firms falling prey to multinationals.

Analysts believe the small but vocal opposition will not fundamentally alter China’s direction of pursuing reform but can slow it. Even before the annual session opened on March 5, the debate forced a property law that was to have been approved this year off the agenda.

Earlier on Tuesday, parliament approved a rural reform plan that seeks to address the chasm dividing rich cities and the poor countryside, closing one of the most contentious legislative sessions in a decade.

The roughly 3,000 delegates to the largely ceremonial National People’s Congress voted on the five-year plan approved by Communist Party leaders at a plenum last year.

Parliament has never voted down Communist Party policy and there was never any suggestion it would do so when it convened at the cavernous Great Hall of the People, perched at the edge of Tiananmen Square and adorned with red flags.

Parliament approved by a vote of 2,858-17 the annual report of Premier Wen. There were 12 abstentions.

Parliament also approved the budget of Finance Minister Jin Rengqing, who called for trimming the budget deficit and winding back a fiscal stimulus that began in 1998, as well as for a double-digit military budget increase. The vote was 2,520 for and 256 against. There were 111 abstentions.

Wen opened parliament on March 5 pledging that China would channel its surging economic growth to narrow the rich-poor gap. That gap has been linked -- along with official corruption, land grabs and other problems -- to a rise in social unrest in the countryside, home to more than 700 million people who earn just a third of the annual wages of their urban brethren.

Setting out government goals for the coming year, Wen also promised stability in general economic policy, including the exchange rate and monetary policy, while saying more investment must go to farmers to ensure stability and growth.

Security has been tight at the 10-day session, with dissidents rounded up or arrested before it began to prevent any petitions or protests that might embarrass the government.