NPC delegates concentrate on food safety and clean air
While China likes to boast about its economic miracle, the topics generating most concern on its rubber-stamp legislature and its top advisory body this week were two basic necessities - air to breathe and food to eat.
Members of the NPC and CPPCC have trumpeted the mainland's economic development for the past two decades, but soaring economic output has been accompanied by environmental and moral costs.
A comic verse on Beijing's haze circulating in internet chat rooms was cited by one CPPCC delegate in a panel discussion attended by party boss Xi Jinping . "Beautiful ladies wear masks, in the terrible haze … ," Yao Tandong , from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, recited earlier this week.
Heavy haze blanketed northern and eastern parts of the mainland this winter. Rocketing readings of PM2.5 - breathable airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that have only been disclosed recently - shocked the public.
The severe air pollution prompted reflection about decades of development of steel mills, chemical plants and other polluting industries.
Xi told delegates to calm down and be patient. "When I was young, I used to wear a mask on sandstorm days," said Xi, 59, recalling his childhood in Beijing. "The mask ended up filled with a thick layer of sand when I rode from home to school. In the old days, there was no measure of PM2.5, but PM250." He said policymakers would need time to fix the problem.
The food safety debate intensified after Hong Kong introduced restrictions this month on the amount of infant milk formula that can be taken across the border.
Food regulators often find themselves besieged by questions on safety nowadays. A flood of scandals have been reported in the past few years, involving everything from rice to cooking oil and food additives.
NPC deputy Song Xinfang said: "Three decades ago, people thought a lot about 'what to eat' at a time of poverty. Now the question has become 'what can be eaten'. We don't dare to eat."
CPPCC delegate Liang Ping said: "It is ridiculous that such a big country cannot provide safe baby formula and forces its people's buy baby food overseas."
Liang, chairman of Shaanxi Energy Group, said farmers used to add all sorts of stuff to milk - from water to salt and detergent - before toxic melamine found in several domestic brands killed at least six babies and made nearly 300,000 ill in 2008.
While sellers pursued profits without even a basic conscience, inaction, toleration, mismanagement or collusion by regulators were really to blame for food problems, he said.
With consumers having lost confidence in mainland food brands, they flood overseas, emptying shelves and upsetting local supply and demand.
Regulators have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to calls to ensure food quality. They either deny food quality is a problem, or blame consumers' blind faith in foreign products.
Vice-Commerce Minister Jiang Zengwei said economic restructuring was urgently needed.
"Many cities are in a frenzy of industrialisation and urbanisation," he said. "However, we should realise resources are scarce and the hope lies in people's consumption to drive up the economy."