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Springtime in Beijing? Time for 'Lianghui'

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
Workers remove red lantern decorations for the just completed lunar festivities amid stifling smog in Beijing Wednesday.
Workers remove red lantern decorations for the just completed lunar festivities amid stifling smog in Beijing Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NPC is often dismissed as a rubber-stamp legislature subservient to the Communist Party
  • This year the NPC will review and approve China's new Five-Year Plan (2011-2015)
  • Horizon: Wen expected to raise public satisfaction as a priority
  • Call for demonstrations fell flat but has made the officials more paranoid

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- It's the time of year when the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a national advisory body of mostly non-Communist delegates, convene.

As in the past, thousands of lianghui, or two-meeting, delegates will meet next week in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, next to Tiananmen Square, to discuss and vote on major issues and legislation.

The NPC is often dismissed by critics as a "flower vase," a mere rubber-stamp legislature subservient to the Communist Party, noting that delegates typically pass laws with overwhelming majorities. Over the years, however, the NPC has become more and more assertive, analysts say. It has allowed delegates to air dissenting voices, especially during deliberation. In a few cases, it has shelved proposed laws or policy initiatives due to dissent.

This year's NPC session is particularly important. It will review and approve China's new Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). Chinese state media reports say the new blueprint will emphasize balanced growth and seek to redress social inequality that market reforms have left in their wake.

Thirty five years after Chairman Mao's death, the Communist Party has built one of the most successful regimes of its kind in the world. Thanks to years of reform, it has delivered rapid economic growth while maintaining its monopoly on power.

China's high-speed growth is one of the Communist Party's proudest achievements, but it has also brought about a slew of challenges, analysts say. "Aside from tackling the new Five-Year Plan, the NPC also has to deal with social inequality, inflation, corruption and pollution, all unintended consequences of rapid growth," says Wenran Jiang, political science professor at the University of Alberta.

Analysts say it is important for the party to live up to their promise of social equity. "The leadership needs to show the Chinese people that the interests of the Communist Party, the people and the nation are aligned," said Drew Thompson, director of Nixon Center in Washington.

The 'Jasmine Revolution' effect (Chinese)
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The leaders' immediate worry is social unrest. Hardly a month goes by in the mainland without news of protests, sometimes violent, by citizens angry over alleged corruption, land seizures and unemployment.

"More local governments will use public satisfaction as the criteria of performance assessment," said Victor Yuan, chairman of the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, a polling firm on Chinese government policy issues, in an e-mail. He expected Premier Wen Jiabao to raise public satisfaction as a priority during the NPC.

And yet, China may face challenges in managing growing socio-economic tensions. "There are too few channels for people to express frustration and seek redress, and that's why people with grievances sometimes resort to extreme means, concedes a mid-level government official in Beijing, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.

Chinese authorities appear concerned about unrest. They have held high-level meetings to formulate countermeasures to avert public protests. They have beefed up police presence in important locations, especially in and around Tiananmen Square.

On February 19, President Hu Jintao gave a speech to provincial governors and government ministers, asking them to learn "social management" and tighten supervision of the internet. He called on them to "solve prominent problems that might harm the harmony and stability of the society."

Since February 16, authorities have questioned or detained 29 rights lawyers and dissidents, according to Human Rights in China, an advocacy group based in New York.

Preemptive measures like blocking websites and searches of words in local microblog sites failed to stop anonymous netizens, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, from calling for "Jasmine Revolution" gatherings in 13 Chinese cities on February 20.

Even though the call for demonstrations fell flat, as few people showed up, observers say it has made the officialdom even more concerned. "Molihua," the Chinese word for "jasmine," has been blocked in searches of Chinese websites.

While sporadic outbreaks of unrest remain highly possible, the mid-level official in Beijing said that these are unlikely to snowball into any major threat. "We have essential tools to manage crisis," he said. "We have the army and the police, and we can manage public opinion through control of the media and the internet."

China has long blocked websites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. This week it has reportedly disrupted access to LinkedIn, another networking site.

Jiang of the University of Alberta cited other reasons few experts think China will be next to fall. "China's high growth rate has delivered benefits to the majority of Chinese people," Jiang said. "Although the income gap is very wide, still the poor have benefited from the system and are not in a desperate situation. Most people are not in a revolutionary mood."

Besides, he noted, "China has been through 1989," referring to the bloody crackdown of the massive Tiananmen protests. "The Tiananmen genie remains in the bottle."

Unlike the dictators in the Middle East, the Chinese leaders are not complacent, Jiang added. "They have learned the Tiananmen lessons well," he said. "They put high priority on social stability and have been constantly monitoring all possible sources of instability. When they see them, they just nip them in the bud."