People's republic of China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2004, 12:00am

Under president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji, China astounded the world with its economic growth. However, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are making it clear that they have a somewhat different emphasis.

The new leadership has presented itself as a more caring government and advocated what it calls a 'scientific' concept of development. Instead of blindly focusing on growth, the emphasis is on 'people-centred development'.

Mr Wen, in his report to the 10th National People's Congress in March, said he would 'make development our top priority', but would also 'adhere to the scientific viewpoint of development' and 'put people first'.

This 'people-centred' concept was touted by the People's Daily as 'a human-centred scientific concept of development featuring humanistic governance and comprehensive, co-ordinated and sustainable development of the economy and society'.

The concept has been praised by Zhou Jue, president of the China Society for Human Rights, as being of significance in the improvement of human rights protection in China.

The newspaper, in an authoritative commentary, virtually elevated the Hu-Wen leadership to the same level as the pantheon of communist leaders by saying: 'The scientific concept of development is a Marxist concept of development that keeps pace with the times and is in the same strain with the important thoughts of Comrades Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.'

Both Mr Hu and Mr Wen have repeatedly referred to yi ren wei ben, the concept of 'putting people first', and are making clear that the principle has practical applications. In Beijing last week, I was informed that when Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing made representations to US Secretary of State Colin Powell on July 26 regarding the assault on a Chinese tourist at Niagara Falls, he did so at the behest of Mr Hu. Zhao Yan, a 37-year-old businesswoman from Tianjin, had been pepper-sprayed and beaten by a US border inspector who thought she was part of a group of drug smugglers. The inspector has been charged with civil rights violations.

The Chinese leadership is so concerned about human rights, I was told, that Mr Hu has informed Chinese embassies around the world to do everything possible to protect Chinese citizens, even if they are illegal immigrants who have violated the law. This admonition arose in the aftermath of a tragic accident this year when 19 Chinese drowned while picking cockles in Lancashire, in northern England.

In principle, attaching value to human life, in particular the life of individuals, is important, and China deserves praise for doing so. In the past, there had been too much emphasis on the faceless 'masses'.

In recent days, the Chinese media has played up the plight of Ms Zhao. Certainly, the incident should never have occurred, and the State Department has voiced 'great regret'. But it would be wrong for China to use it to criticise the US and its human rights record.

Indeed, if Beijing is serious about the welfare of its individuals, there is a great deal that can be done. Each day, in fact, brings stories of new tragedies. Just this week, The New York Times reported on the suicide in Sichuan province of 18-year-old Zheng Qingming, who stood in front of an express train because his impoverished family could not raise US$80 to enable him to qualify for a college entrance examination.

As the newspaper said: 'If his gruesome death was shocking, the life of this peasant boy is repeated a millionfold across the Chinese countryside.' If yi ren wei ben means anything, the Communist Party and the government must see to it that young people never have to take such desperate steps because they feel there is no hope. If there is no hope for them, there is no hope for China.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator