Annual rural-policy ritual goes nowhere
The central government's policies on rural development are not being implemented effectively, say scholars.
Every October since 2004, officials and researchers have gathered behind closed doors at a Beijing hotel to start drafting a lengthy document for release during Lunar New Year.
Drawn up jointly by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council, the so-called No document - the first policy blueprint of the year - has tended to focus on rural development, to which the central government has attached great importance in recent years.
Scholars say, however, that these policy papers - lengthy, repetitious and published at a time when the country is busy celebrating - have not been properly implemented.
Peng Zhenhuai, head of the Local Government Research Institute at Peking University, said the documents were too diffuse for grass-roots cadres to explain them to farmers, especially when people are busy visiting relatives and friends during the Lunar New Year holiday. 'It is a document for farmers,' he said. 'It should be concise and easy to understand.'
The draft of the document is typically discussed at the annual Central Rural Work Conference in late December, then sent to local governments in early January. However, it is considered confidential and is only released by the official Xinhua news agency around the end of January.
After mapping out a plan in last year's document to rebuild irrigation systems and initiate drinking-water projects in rural areas, the central government has shifted its focus this year to the development of agricultural science and technologies.
Rarely, indeed, has there been continuity in terms of the theme of the document from year to year, and none have featured a summary or assessment of major tasks mentioned in the previous year's document.
'Solving a rural problem, such as the water issue... requires at least a period of five years,' Peng said.
He compared the papers unfavourably with policy documents on rural issues produced in the 1980s. Papers released between 1982 and 1986 covered two major issues - introducing a new land system and scrapping the state's monopoly on the purchase and sale of grain - and focused on gradual efforts to enact those changes. By contrast, the documents since 2004 have included new priorities every year and failed to follow up on previous policies.
Dr Li Guoxiang, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Rural Development Institute, said that although clear targets had been set every year, they could not be successfully implemented. 'We only invest money, but we don't assess the results of our investment,' he said.
In response to last year's 'No 1 document, the central government invested more than 180 billion yuan (HK$222 billion) in water projects, a 20 per cent increase from 2010, according to data from the Ministry of Water Resources.
However, some fear a large portion of the money was wasted.
Zheng Fengtian, a researcher from Renmin University's school of agricultural economics and rural development, said such waste was partly the result of local governments' unwillingness or inability to contribute to funding projects.
He said that during a visit to Henan province in 2010, he found that a road had become badly damaged just a year after being finished.
'The local government was asked to contribute its own share of money to go with the funds from above [for this project],' he said.
'Since the local government was too poor to provide this money, but had to construct the road according to [Beijing's requirements], it finally built the road with just a thin sheet of asphalt.'
Zheng also doubted whether subsidies introduced in accordance with the 'No1 documents' were actually benefiting the poor.
A complicated combination of subsidies is available to farmers for machinery, but items must first be bought before the subsidy is paid. 'The poor [local governments] cannot afford to buy, and therefore do not benefit from the subsidies,' Zheng said. 'Only the richer ones benefit.'