Wen Jiabao

Refreshing honesty as top leader 'embarrassed' by food safety

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2011, 12:00am

Vice-Premier Wang Qishan is widely known for his sharp mind and witty remarks, among government officials and the overseas businessmen he has met. Unfortunately this is not well known to the general public, since state media reports about his activities are customarily brief.

So a report in the Beijing Times yesterday quoting Wang as lamenting the country's poor level of food safety provides rare insight into him and how the mainland's top leaders view the issue.

Wang told the National People's Congress deputies from Shandong that he and other leaders were 'very much embarrassed' by the country's food safety record, after praising the Communist Party for spending so much energy to ensure adequate food for the country's 1.3 billion people.

'But now we are very embarrassed. Just as we have enough to eat, we have the food safety issue,' Wang was quoted as saying. In fact, according to someone present at the meeting, Wang elaborated by saying all four vice-premiers including him were embarrassed. He said there was now plenty of supply, 'but the issue is how one eats with his mind at rest'.

'Their minds are not at rest over the whiter flour or more glistening rice,' he said, apparently referring to the media reports that hazardous chemicals were used in processing.

In a vivid illustration of the widespread concern over food safety, Wang cited Premier Wen Jiabao as telling him that during his recent inspection to Henan, an elderly woman produced some peanuts and told Wen to eat with assurance as she had grown them herself.

He said this was nothing new: in the Beijing suburbs, farmers eat vegetables grown separately from those raised for public consumption. Wang said tackling food safety would remain an arduous task and that, despite the government's efforts, food inspection was weak because of a shortage of staff.

He jokingly told NPC deputies they should eat a bit more at their hotels and less at other places, as the food supply for the annual session of the NPC/CPPCC was strictly monitored - from the farm to the kitchen - as were those for the Olympic Games, the World Expo and the Asian Games.

'But what about our daily life? Can't we do it? Those are the issues worth studying.'

As expected, Wen, in presenting the government work report for this year and the next five-year plan on Saturday, has promised to overhaul the way the economy operates and spread the benefits of growth to all people.

In fact, both this year's report and the five-year plan (covering the years 2011-15) focus on measures to improve mainlanders' livelihood. These include plans to build 10 million government-subsidised, low-income housing units this year - reaching a total of 36 million units by 2015 - create 45 million new jobs by 2015, and increase living allowances for both urban and rural residents by an annual average of 10 per cent by 2015.

In a move that would make many mainland and overseas businessmen - including those from Hong Kong - grimace, is the measure to increase the minimum wage by an annual average of more than 13 per cent, a total rise of more than 80 per cent by 2015.

'We need to put people first, make ensuring and improving their well-being the starting point and goal of all our work, unwaveringly work for prosperity for all and ensure that everyone shares in the fruits of development,' Wen said.

On that score Wen deserves applause, and judging by the largely favourable reaction from the overseas and mainland media, the two reports were well received.

But just as his two reports are notable for placing the top priority on improving people's well-being to ease discontent, they are also equally notable for a lack of push for political reforms. To be sure, the word 'reform' is littered throughout the two reports, as Wen promised to 'be more resolute and courageous in carrying out reform'.

But the wording on political reform is clearly toned down this year. On Saturday, Wen merely said: 'We will actively, yet prudently, advance political restructuring' without further elaboration when listing the key objectives for the five-year plan.

In last year's government work report his choice of words was high-sounding, saying that 'without political restructuring, it would not be possible for economic structuring and the modernisation drive to succeed'. He followed it up by stressing the importance of political reforms on several public occasions, causing a brief period of excitement among mainland liberals.

Now they argue, perhaps rightly, that the mainland leadership is more interested in talking up stability and toning down political reforms as the country goes through its own political cycle - which will see changes in the top leadership next year - and also because of their concerns over calls for peaceful gatherings modelled after the movements in the Middle East.