To be or not to be insistent upon the eight per cent target, that is the question. Whether Beijing should still uphold the goal of an eight per cent gross domestic product (GDP) growth this year has become a matter of great controversy among cadres and economists. Many Western experts say privately that short of cooking the books, there is no way the objective can be reached in view of sluggish consumption, poor exports, and dwindling foreign investments. Liberal cadres have complained that the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has mobilised the entire country to baoba ('guarantee the eight per cent') smacks of a Maoist mass movement. There are indications that even Premier Zhu Rongji, noted for his penchant for cutting Gordian knots, is having reservations about his pet pursuit. In internal talks, the economic tsar has given subtle indications he may be amenable to a climbdown. For example, he has told aides that 'even if we only make seven per cent, the Chinese economy will still have outperformed all First World countries'. During his just-finished inspection trip of Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, Mr Zhu surprised observers by making no reference to baoba. This was despite the fact that the major theme of his instructions to officials in these two provinces was to reflate the economy. Seasoned Zhu watchers agree, however, that while he has made moves to protect his flank, he is pulling out the stops to attain the development clip. Somewhat like the pledge not to devalue the yuan, the eight per cent threshold has become as much a political as an economic goal. At stake is the personal prestige of the CCP leadership, particularly the 'face' of Mr Zhu. With the on-set of the disastrous floods, the leadership has redoubled baoba edicts to all provinces and cities. Rich provinces and cities along the coast have been asked to aim for 10 to 12 per cent or more to make up for the shortfall in the inland regions or those hard hit by rainstorms. Said a planning official in Guangzhou: 'It's eight per cent for the entire nation, at least 10 per cent for Guangdong, and at least 12 per cent for Guangzhou.' As is the case with other 'priority tasks', officials in areas that fail to make the grade will be fired, demoted, or transferred to less prosperous regions. In a throwback to the days of Mao, the propaganda machinery has in the past week or so publicised the vital statistics of different regions in an apparent effort to honour the pace-setters and whip the laggards into shape. The economy of coastal Fujian grew 10.9 per cent in the first half year, 'only' 0.1 per cent below the official fiat, according to local officials. Comparable figures for Guangdong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin and Changsha are respectively 9.2 per cent, 11.9 per cent, 9.4 per cent, 8.8 per cent and 8.1 per cent. However, prosperous Jiangsu province, which scored a disappointing eight per cent, has a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps to invest the baoba campaign with extra significance, some of Mr Zhu's ministers have gone so far as to say the eight per cent standard was conceived partly with Hong Kong in mind. 'The SAR's economy will take even longer to recover if the mainland economy can't grow by as much as eight per cent,' a Zhu aide reportedly said. 'We must do more for compatriots in Hong Kong.' To give added momentum to the baoba crusade, Mr Zhu has reversed his five-year-old tight money policy and made available billions of yuan worth of extra credit. Experts, however, have discerned abuses galore in the political-cum-economic crusade. First, in defiance of Mr Zhu's own caveat about supporting only efficient and market-oriented state-owned enterprises (SOEs), government loans are once again flowing into unwieldy firms. A June circular pointed out loans should still be vouchsafed loss-making SOEs provided that parts of their production facilities were 'relatively efficient and have sales potentials'. The upshot of the relaxation of Mr Zhu's austerity programme is that hundreds of hitherto unqualified SOEs are benefiting from government largesse. Even more flagrant is the violation of the Prime Minister's dictum that the bulk of the loans be earmarked for infrastructure projects such as highways and telecommunications, and not manufacturing. Mr Zhu is keenly aware that owing to flat consumer demand, there has been a horrendous oversupply of products ranging from VCDs to television sets and refrigerators. 'We must stop going blindly into production areas already hit by overlapping,' he told Inner Mongolian and Shanxi cadres, adding that no new industrial items should basically be approved. Yet the worst aspect of the baoba movement is that it tends to propagate a Great Leap Forward-style mentality. Local officials are beating up statistics to please their superiors and keep their mandarin caps. Instances of wastage and inefficiency are obvious even in the area of infrastructure. After all, Mr Zhu himself has complained there are too many coastal cities building airports, bridges and subways. Last week, he warned local cadres against 'blindly seeking after speed'. Mr Zhu's criticism, however, is unfair to the extent that meeting Beijing's goals and other requirements has been the name of the game for cadres since 1949. This is true not just for economic targets but also quotas on nabbing criminals and catching women with unpermitted pregnancies. Political analysts have no doubt that given Chinese-style mass mobilisation, not only eight, but nine per cent growth rates are attainable. The only problem is that these exemplary GDP figures often mask an inordinate amount of white-elephant projects and goods sitting in warehouses. Mr Zhu has recently been criticised for creating a 'bubble economy' by releasing too much money for infrastructure and housing, which the economic tsar hopes will spearhead another cycle of growth. 'The premier is convinced that after the cessation of free government housing last month, there will be a boom in the private housing market,' a Beijing economist said. However, he added, consumers have remained extremely cautious, and Beijing's great expectations could engender a new glut in a property market that has already been hit by oversupply.