People First policies can nip any 'jasmine' blooms
Last week, Zhao Qizheng, a top government adviser and former minister of the State Council Information Office, told overseas reporters the mainland faced no risk of a 'jasmine revolution' like those in the Middle East.
But the overwhelming show of police force in the downtown district of Beijing and several other major cities painted a different picture yesterday - one that is likely to be interpreted by overseas media as showing the level of the Chinese leaders' nervousness.
That may be true, but the display of force is more of an emphatic sign that top leaders are ready to nip in the bud any kind of protest or gathering that is modelled on the recent movements, which have led to regime changes in the Middle East.
Mao Zedong's famous saying of many decades ago - 'a single spark can start a prairie fire' - has always been a motto for mainland leaders.
In fact, they expect to maintain high-level security nationwide, particularly in Beijing, in the run-up and throughout the annual sessions of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which opens on Thursday, and the National People's Congress, which opens on Saturday.
Judging by the editorials and commentaries in the overseas media in the past few weeks, they have largely shared Zhao's view, citing the mainland's robust economic growth and plenty of opportunities to find jobs as well as the mainlanders' distaste for instability.
In addition, while the dictators and their families in the troubled Middle Eastern countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, have been the specific targets and sources of uprisings, the situation is markedly different in China. The mainland's leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, in fact enjoy popular support for their so-called People First policies to create 'a harmonious society', although mainlanders are angry about corruption among lower-ranking officials.
More importantly, Chinese leaders have long realised the real dangers of the popular discontent fuelled by income disparity, rising inflation and rampant corruption over the past 30 years of developments, which pursue economic growth above everything else. As a result, they have undertaken comprehensive measures including massive spending on education, medical care, and housing as well as rewriting tax codes to narrow income inequality.
Still, the Middle Eastern revolutions carry both short-term and long-term political and business implications for the mainland's growth and its overseas expansion.
While the overseas media focuses on whether the uprisings could spread to China, the mainland's businesses have already suffered greatly. The uprisings are not only inflicting billions of US dollars worth of damage on the Chinese investments in those troubled countries, but they're also likely to prompt a serious reassessment of the country's overall overseas investment strategy.
According to mainland media reports, the Chinese companies have several tens of billions of US dollars worth of rail and municipal projects involving more than 30,000 workers in Libya alone. They are likely to suffer huge losses following the departure of workers and damage to the equipment there.
Over the past few years, mainland companies, driven by hunger for oil and mineral resources, have invested heavily in the Middle East and Africa, including some troubled countries like Sudan, Iran and Libya.
At home, the revolutions in the Middle East will certainly prompt China's leaders to take more and drastic measures to tackle the issues which have triggered widespread discontent and, of course, step up crackdowns on dissent and civil activism.
Two developments in particular may be uncanny coincidences, but they indeed show the fast reflexes of the mainland leaders.
On February 19, one day before the first anti-government gathering that was called for online, Hu summoned all provincial, ministerial and military leaders for a special study session at the Central Party School on how to improve 'social management', an official euphemism for finding ways to contain social disturbances.
Yesterday, the day of the second so-called revolutionary gathering, Wen held an online chat and promised to tackle public concerns over inflation, soaring housing prices and corruption.
Of course, neither Hu nor Wen referred to the problems in the Middle East, but the implied meaning is obvious enough.
In an indication that the mainland leadership would announce more 'sweeteners' to improve the people's livelihood, Wen said yesterday that the State Council would discuss on Wednesday raising the minimum threshold for paying personal income tax and put the amendment up for a vote at the upcoming NPC session.
Although the calls for raising that tax threshold have been rising in the past few years, the Ministry of Finance officials had until recently dismissed such calls.
Other measures in the pipeline are likely to include raising the country's poverty line and raising pensions and financial subsidies for the country's elderly.
Addressing public needs keeps the people from thinking about jasmine.