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Bob Dowling

Bob Dowling

Posted: October 21, 2007 11:17 PM

The Party Congress Ends

I watched the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party, which ended Sunday, from my apartment like an American following a nominating convention on C-SPAN. It was foreign but also eerily familiar.

Foreign because the black haired men on camera sat U.N. fashion in long rows, took notes throughout the speech and remained expressionless.

No cheering allowed. Familiar because if you closed your eyes and skipped over hot button regional issues like Taiwan you might have been listening to a State of the Union address.

China's TV9, the government's English language channel, broadcast President Hu Jintao's 2 hour, 20 minute "Work Report" live on Monday morning and followed up with news updates through the week.

Immediately after Hu ended an attractive woman anchor in a pink suit jacket interviewed two academic commentators about military spending, the environment and other highlights that I assumed the leadership wanted directed at an international audience.

A few hours later, an English version of the speech with some 20 "key points" in the right hand column was up on the net. The first bullet was on "sustainable growth." The second observed that Hu "mentions democracy" more than 60 times. Others were, "no tolerance for corruption, modernize the army for self defense, enhance soft power, reverse growing income disparity, advocate a conservation culture" and quadruple per capita GDP in the next 13 years without damaging the environment or wasting resources.

The handout might have also said Hu called for better health care, better schools, lifetime learning programs and major investments in innovation, which he did.

The goal to quadruple per capita GDP, now $2,024 shifts the emphasis from raw economic size to individual welfare. It's a tall order even in an economy at 10% plus a year. Economic size is the stat you hear about when forecasters predict China will knock off the U.S. as the world's largest ecoomy by 2020 or 2025 or whenever. By emphasizing per capita GDP the government is suggesting that the goal is to make sure the roaring economy will also benefit everyone and help narrow the expanding rich poor gap. But unless the economic czars make sure the gains are spread around, growth doesn't necessarily mean income equality gets better.

The rich-poor gap is an A list issue but it's hard to tell how much feedback the 73 million member Party wants about any of the above -- and if China's newly prosperous urbanites are listening at all.

A few hours before Hu's speech, a 40 inch flat screen TV made by LG, the South Korean company, was suddenly mounted in the foyer of our J school building. It carried the speech and Party Congress news all week.

Dozens walking by treated it the same as a cable news screen in a U.S. office: they glanced up and kept going.

The only guy I saw viewing it all week was the security guard-but he's posted in the hall.

We so called "foreign experts" teaching at Tsinghua U. did get invited to the discussion however. A Ms Qi Yin in the HR office of sent an email to about 90 of us on the first day of the Congress asking for comments and suggestions. Tully Rector, a visiting U.S. philosophy professor made the obvious point. All worthy goals, he said, but vague enough to mean anything.

A German academic went further. China is doing a lot of good that goes unrecognized but gets a bad international press because of the constraints it puts on open discussion.

Lighten up, he suggested. We'll see.