Wrong formula

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 December, 2010, 12:00am

The Communist Party led by general secretary Hu Jintao , who serves concurrently as head of state, has put emphasis on the need for a 'people-oriented policy' to form a 'harmonious society'. These are important concepts. The policy of putting people first has been cited as the rationale for such actions as helping the victims of earthquakes and evacuating Chinese nationals caught in dangerous situations overseas, such as when Kyrgyzstan was torn by riots. A people-centred policy would also result in much safer mines in China, where more miners die every year than in any other country.

A harmonious society, too, is a worthy goal. But the government should realise that no society is without conflict. From a practical standpoint, China should provide more resources for the resolution of conflicts rather than trying to artificially bring about harmony by throwing in jail everyone with a grievance, on the grounds that they are troublemakers and threaten harmony.

After all, there can be no harmonious society unless such concepts as justice and fairness are upheld.

The treatment of Zhao Lianhai is a case in point. Zhao's infant son, like 300,000 other Chinese children - at least six of whom died - became sick in 2008 after he was given milk laced with the chemical melamine and developed a kidney stone.

Like any father, he cared for his son's health - but not only for his son's health. Zhao got in contact with other people in the same plight and created a website for babies with kidney stones. He met other aggrieved parents, held demonstrations in front of courthouses demanding justice and gave interviews to the media.

Those actions, it turns out, were crimes. Zhao was accused of inciting social disorder by 'picking quarrels and provoking trouble'. He was found guilty and jailed for 2 1/2 years.

But then, Hong Kong stepped in. Not just the usual suspects, the democrats who called for the release of the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Virtually the entire pro-Beijing establishment in Hong Kong rose up in protest at the way the mainland legal system was treating someone seen as a hero, who was himself a victim and whose cause was just.

Individual deputies of the National People's Congress wrote to the president of the Supreme People's Court and other national leaders. Twenty-eight deputies wrote a joint letter calling for Zhao's release.

Hong Kong members of China's top advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, also petitioned mainland leaders.

That got Beijing's attention. Xinhua issued a statement citing 'concerns in Hong Kong'. Xinhua defended the court ruling on the grounds that Zhao had continued his activism even though his son was given free hospital treatment and he was offered compensation.

'From October 2008 to September 2009, Zhao, although his son has already recovered from kidney stones, still made use of this problem to organise, provoke and rally people to make trouble by chanting slogans and gathering illegally in the districts of Daxing, Fengtai and Dongcheng in Beijing city and Shijiazhuang city, Hebei ,' Xinhua said. 'Such actions have seriously disrupted the social order of these areas.'

From the central government's viewpoint, it appears, each individual should only be concerned with his own child's welfare. So if - and that is still a big if - Zhao's son had fully recovered, then he should no longer have continued his fight for justice.

That is not a prescription for a harmonious society. It is a prescription for a selfish, uncaring society where each person is concerned only with his own welfare and does not care for the public good.

The central government, by singling Zhao out for punishment instead of praise, is creating a society where individuals are self-centered, not people-oriented, a society in which neighbours and friends do not give each other a helping hand in times of need. Such a society would be far from harmonious.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator