The Chinese are particularly concerned about “face”. But such concern may become absurd pride and vanity when it goes overboard and gets obsessive. When such obsession goes to the extreme, it leads to cover-up and denial. The municipal government of Beijing’s blatant denial of the city’s PM2.5 pollution several years back was a shameful case in point.
The “face” issue occurred to me because the most impressive feature of the report on government work Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered at annual session of the National People’s Congress was it got rid of face-saving considerations, squarely faced difficulties in socio-economic development, instead of hiding contradictions from public awareness. This report was different from previous ones in that it didn’t shy away from acknowledging the shortcomings and weaknesses, even faults, in the performance of the State Council and affiliated institutions in the past year. In the meantime, it was straightforward about the challenges and pressures the country faces during a new five-year period.
Without the boring vanity and slogan-shouting of some previous reports, Li made an honest revelation: Due to withering global trade, Chinese exports dropped last year, failing to meet set goals. Investment increase was feeble; some industries showed serious overcapacity; some enterprises were struggling to survive; development gaps widened between regions and industries; there were prominent imbalances between government revenue and expenditure; and risks and hidden troubles emerged in such fields as financial sectors. Problems regarding such universal public concerns as medical care, education, pension and eldercare, food and drug safety, income distribution, and urban administration abounded. Some places were haunted by severe haze. But Li used carefully worded language when it came to the anti-corruption campaign, striving to not overestimate: “A small number of officials do not act, cannot act, or act abusively, and malpractices and corruption in some sectors cannot be ignored.”
Contrary to some people’s blind optimism, the report conveyed the leadership’s cool-headed evaluation of obstacles at home and abroad that may threaten the country’s development in the years to come. Economically, China will face more, greater challenges in the next five years, said the report.
To my surprise, Li made a special mention of rising “geo-political risks” while talking about the increasing instable, uncertain factors in the country’s external environment, because “geo-politics” used to be a near-taboo in past speeches of Chinese leaders that had vanished from official lexicon since the Mao era. By re-embracing this term in Western political science, Li’s report indicated the Chinese leadership’s clear sense of crisis regarding the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. Meanwhile, under the pressures from the United States’ pivot to Asia as well as Southeast Asian nations’ stances and possible changes in them have become a major concern of the Chinese leadership.
Such straightforwardness in turn gave us a glimpse of the active endeavors being made to adjust countermeasures and address upcoming challenges.
This is proof that, after 38 years of fast yet extensive development, the Chinese government has come to the understanding that the Chinese economy and society are entering a new stage, need new gauges and fresh inspirations. From setting a 6.5%-7% range for economic growth to highlighting supply-side reforms, Chinese decision-makers have displayed a strong desire to conform and adapt to the new situation and make changes.
As to the relationship between government and market, the Chinese government is more focused on reducing and simplifying public powers. Excessive government interference and inadequate role for the market itself in the past had given rise to numerous problems. The dramatic turbulences in the stock market late last year and in the real estate market early this year indicated an imperative need for further changes in government functions in order to pursue healthy development and win time and space for tackling the predicament.
Another illustration of the profound change in the current leadership’s approach to macro-level concerns obvious in the report was that they are resorting to strongly market-oriented measures to correct people’s undesirable habits and practices in semi-compulsory manners. Chinese-made small commodities have been sold all over the world. But fake and shoddy products have cast a shadow over the “Made in China” label. The government decided to invest heavily in technical training for new industrial workers and upgrade vocational training through more input in corresponding institutions. Even it was not the first time, it must be very rare for the term “craftsmanship” to find its way into a report on government work. Carelessness, contempt of professionalism, and disregard of details in both production and management are not only logical outcomes of the impetuous mindset of the present Chinese, but are increasingly becoming an ulcer threatening our very habitat and well-being.
From such a perspective, the Chinese premier’s report embodied not only decision-makers’ policy orientations, but also a profound people-first mentality that will be of far-reaching significance.