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Commentary (August 18, 2006)

Shortfall of Political Courage in China

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

Mainland China has a host of problems, and many people who are trying to come to grips with them. What seems harder to find is the political will necessary to push for solutions.

Take the matter of statistics. Before the end of every year, China announces its economic growth rate for that year. This does not strengthen one's confidence in mainland figures.

After all, it takes time for the different provinces to assemble their figures and send them to Beijing, where they are examined.

What is even stranger is that the growth number announced is never the sum of the provincial figures. The total is always less, betraying Beijing's belief that provincial figures cannot be trusted. In the end, you get an estimate based on Beijing's best guess about how much the provinces have inflated their figures.

For the first half of this year, all mainland provinces reported double-digit growth, with an average growth rate of 12 per cent. However, the National Bureau of Statistics put the country's growth at 10.9 per cent - or 1.1 percentage points less - discounting US$10.06 billion in growth.

Beijing officials know local governments routinely inflate figures, to make themselves look good in the central government's eyes. Officials then estimate how much exaggeration there was, and attempt to come up with a figure that is roughly right.

At the local level, statisticians know which side their bread is buttered. Governments pay them and decide if they should be promoted. Changing that situation would help to generate better figures. Another solution would be to publish provincial figures and insist that local officials account for them.

The issue is solvable, but it will take political will.

Beijing's birth-control policies also lead to problems. Many observers have pointed to abuses, including female infanticide, late-term abortions and the worsening imbalance of males to females in the general population. The State Commission for Population and Family Planning predicts that, by 2020, 25 million men will be unable to find wives if the current gender imbalance continues.

While globally the ratio is between 103 and 107 boys born for every 100 girls, on the mainland it is 119 boys for every 100 girls.

Again, the problem could be resolved with enough political will. Beijing must stop using the birth rate to assess the performance of local officials. This system encourages local abuses, such as false imprisonment and forced abortions.

One solution would be to replace the one-child policy with a one-son policy. That way, couples might stop killing baby girls, since they would have another chance to have a boy. The gender balance would improve, too.

Another problem is the need to be more open about health issues. The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis gave China a bad name, since it was shown to be suppressing information. The result was that people overseas had to pay the price for China's deceit with their lives, as the virus spread.

The issue resurfaced this month when the use of a defective antibiotic led to at least six deaths before the drug was banned. According to the Beijing News, the first notice of an adverse reaction to the drug was posted on the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) website on July 27, but the drug was not banned until a week later.

"We reported as soon as it was suitable to inform the media and society," an SFDA spokesman was quoted as saying. "It was very timely."

However, the mainland media has blamed an obsession with profits, and lax supervision, for the deaths of dozens of people as a result of fake or shoddy products.

The deadly antibiotic is but the latest incident.

It is encouraging that these problems are being discussed on the mainland. However, it is high time to replace talk with action. Unfortunately, some measures under consideration, such as muzzling the press, are likely to exacerbate the problems rather than help resolve them.

(Originally appeared in the August 16, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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