From his 2006 Working Report on the first day to his televised press conference which closed the event, Premier Wen Jiabao's message was the same: China is not turning its back on rapid economic growth or the reforms that are coming with it, but supplementing it with a more inclusive program aimed at creating a better-balanced society.
China's economic growth and reforms lifted nearly 400 million Chinese out of poverty between 1981 and 2001, based on the World Bank's US$1 per day income measure, but the pace of poverty reduction has slowed in recent years. Bank figures show the number of rural poor declined by 13.7 million annually during the 1980s, by 6.2 million in the 1990s, but by only 1.5 million this century.
Outlining the themes of China's 11th Five-Year Plan for 2006-2010, Wen stressed the importance of building a "new socialist countryside," reversing decades of urban favoritism by transferring more investment and government funding to the countryside. "The issues concerning agriculture, rural areas and farmers are fundamental ones that have bearings on China's overall modernization drive," he said.
Most of the measures to close the gap between rich and poor have already been announced: free primary school education, the abolition of the agricultural tax and increased spending on rural hospitals and health insurance.
China plans to earmark US$43 billion for agriculture, rural areas and farmers in 2006, US$5.25 billion more than last year. It has already boosted rural spending 50% since 2002.
The ambitious rural renewal program has previously been labeled by critics as "anti-reform" and "demarketization." But one expert favorably compared it to the New Deal, which dragged the US out of depression in the 1930s. As to whether it will produce a similar effect, judgments are likely to be reserved until the 12th Five-Year Plan is announced in 2010.
Further bird flu deaths
A 32-year-old man from southern Guangdong province and a nine-year-old girl from the southeastern province of Zhejiang became China's ninth and tenth bird flu victims, respectively. The girl was said to have visited the home of relatives whose chickens died while she was there. But the death of the man was more controversial, raising questions about how the virus is spreading given that none of China's 30 or so bird flu outbreaks have taken place in Guangdong. Fifteen people have contracted the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus in China and authorities warned that the latest death reinforced concerns about a major outbreak. Meanwhile, a former Chinese journalist told the newspaper Epoch Times that China has covered up over 400 human bird flu cases. The unidentified journalist said he obtained his information from a Shenyang Municipal Public Health Bureau internal report.
Employment crisis hits
The National Development and Reform Commission declared 2006 the "country's worst employment crisis ever" as around 25 million children of baby boomers, born around 1980, seek their first jobs. The NDRC said China could only generate around 11 million new jobs this year. Guo Yue, a researcher with the Institute for Labor Studies under the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, added that at no time in this decade has job creation exceeded 10 million a year. "The government is racking its brains to create jobs as it braces for a real tough year," Guo said.
"Abusers" in tit-for-tat
China and the US branded each other human rights abusers in a tit-for-tat exchange, beginning with the US State Department's annual report on global human rights. The US report said that, despite certain legal reforms, greater personal freedom and increased protection for some religious activities, a rise in censorship of both the Internet and media outlets undermined China's performance. It also claimed there was increased harassment, detention and imprisonment by the authorities of people seen as being a political threat to the government. Beijing hit back the next day with a report highlighting abuses in America from racial discrimination to electronic surveillance. The State Council report said it was necessary to investigate America's human rights violations to help people realize the "true features" of the "self-styled guardian of human rights."
Rice wants clarity on military
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on China to give a clearer picture of its military expansion plans in response to official approval for a 14.7% increase in the country's military spending to US$35 billion. Speaking during her trip to Australia last month, Rice said China should "undertake to be transparent about what it means." In the past, the US has accused Beijing of understating how much it spends on the military, claiming that the real budget was in the region of US$90 billion a year. This is still considerably less than the US$400 billion America spent on its military in 2005.
Land compensation hike
Compensation payments made to farmers whose land is seized by the state could be tied to a market rate under plans being examined by the National Development and Reform Commission. Given that the current system sees compensation calculated according to the agricultural value of the land, a market-based approach is likely to dramatically increase the amount paid to rural residents. The government hopes that this would not only cut down on social tension surrounding land disputes but also prevent local authorities and developers from making huge profits from the subsequent sale of the land for commercial use.
"Friendly" foreign policy
Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing called for warmer relations with the US and put pressure on Iran to resolve the row over its nuclear program as he told reporters at the National People's Congress that China's development would benefit other countries. Ahead of President Hu Jintao's April visit to the US next month, Li said Beijing would try to reduce its US$202 billion trade surplus with Washington and urged US politicians to resist calls for action against China for alleged unfair trading practices. He argued that trade with China created 4-8 million jobs in the US. On the Iranian nuclear dispute, Li advocated further negotiations, emphasizing that Tehran could still settle the issue if it cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Protests over NUC axing
Tens of thousands of protesters marched through Taipei to show their opposition to Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian's decision to scrap the largely ceremonial National Unification Council (NUC) along with the guidelines it provided on rejoining with the Mainland. The move not only angered Beijing, but led to criticism from the opposition Nationalist Party, which supports eventual reunification. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing was preparing for any possible consequences of the move and was willing to have dialogue with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as long as it is willing to give up its pro-independence platform. The DPP was quick to dismiss Wen's offer for dialogue, saying its stance was approved through democratic process and could not easily be dropped.
Space mission delayed
The country's third manned space mission was hit by a six-month delay as scientists said further work was required on creating a spacesuit that can withstand a spacewalk. The government announced last year that Shenzhou VII would launch at some point in 2007, but is now likely to postpone the mission until 2008. Authorities are particularly keen on the mission, which is to be manned by three astronauts, featuring China's first-ever spacewalk.
Caution on death penalty
China ruled out the possibility of abolishing the death penalty, but promised to deal with the sensitive issue more prudently. Xiao Yang, president of the Supreme People's Court, told Chinese lawmakers at the annual session of the National People's Congress that China's current policy was to preserve the death penalty, but use it "cautiously." Legal scholar Liu Renwen of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences earlier said death penalty appeals going to the provincial high court will take place publicly from the second half of this year. He also backed local governments to fight hard to stop the Supreme Court reclaiming the right of final review on death sentences. Liu estimated the number of executions in China to be about 8,000 a year, with 68 offences – half of which are non-violent – incurring the death penalty.
Dalai Lama seeks visit
The Dalai Lama asked Beijing for permission to make a pilgrimage to China for the first time since he fled nearly a half-century ago. Speaking to thousands of followers on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule, which marked the beginning of his exile, the supreme Tibetan leader confirmed his envoys had conveyed his request during recent talks with Beijing. It is not known whether Beijing will agree to the request. There have been five rounds of talks since 2002, which are believed to have focused on the Dalai Lama's demands for more autonomy for Tibet to protect its unique Buddhist culture. Specific details of discussions have not been released, but following the latest round, the Dalai Lama's chief representative Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari said there were signs of a growing understanding between the two sides, though fundamental differences persisted.
Great Wall to be surveyed
A high-tech survey of the Great Wall is to be carried out to protect the ancient structure from further damage. The survey, which will take two years, is to employ global positioning systems and laser range finders to get an accurate picture of the wall's state. The Great Wall has suffered from erosion, tourism and vandalism in recent years and it is hoped the survey will lead to the establishment of a basic legal framework for its protection. Less than 2,500 kilometers remain of the original 6,300km wall first built during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).
Vice Premier Wu Yi told a meeting of Mainland business executives in Beijing that fighting piracy was crucial to China's plans to become a technological powerhouse. Wu vowed to intensify her fight against illegally copied goods. Officials and two large business associations at the meeting pledged to reject pirated goods, especially software, and not to buy or sell counterfeits. "Without intellectual property right protection, there cannot be homegrown innovation," Wu said. "Many of our businesses manufacture but don't innovate. We must be crystal clear that our country still has far to go in protecting intellectual property rights."
Wen defends restrictions
Premier Wen Jiabao defended China's Internet restrictions during the closing session of the National People's Congress, saying Mainlanders have freedom of expression, but must abide by the law. "Every citizen can exercise their right and freedom to use the Internet," he said. "But every citizen must also abide the law, and safeguard our national, social and collective interests." Wen said the government had a duty to supervise its people and quoted Irish Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw in the government's defense: "Liberty means responsibility. [That's why most men dread it]." Wen said the government had received submissions from hundreds of thousands of Internet users during the course of the NPC session.
CHINA BY NUMBERS
The average rural Chinese will save US$19 a year after the country abolishes a 2,600-year-old agricultural tax.
The projected savings account for 4.8% of net income in China's countryside.
China has over 400 million mobile phone users.
The US has 204 million mobile subscribers, second in the world to China.
China will produce 340 million mobile handsets in 2006?
?of which 250 million units will be exported.
The Chinese government invested US$2 billion in North Korea last year.
In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, 52% of white-collar workers have their own weblogs.
Another 28% are expected to start their own blogs soon.
There are 3,000 different shampoo brands in China.
There were only 6 brands
during the 1980s.
Shanghai residents under 30 change jobs every 17.5 months.
China generated an estimated US$68.7 billion in Internet-related revenue last year, up 58% from 2004.
Net profits for Baidu.com, the country's most popular internet portal, rose nearly fourfold to US$5.9 million in 2005, driven by online advertising sales.
Cities and factories used 34% of China's water in 2004.
They used a combined 25% of the water supply in 1998.