By Jiakun Jack Zhang
In an attempt to reorient its economy toward consumption and allow its masses to share more of its record growth, China is quietly undertaking the largest social welfare project in human history.
Decades of rapid economic growth have created vast inequalities, and populism is consequently on the rise. China's 99 percent feel left out of their country's rapid development and are increasingly lodging their complaints online. A recent study of Chinese internet trends in 2011 reveals a shift away from nationalism toward issues of public welfare. The government is paying greater attention to social media and taking notice of this trend. In 2011, mentions of Weibo (Chinese twitter) in The People's Daily (the Party mouthpiece newspaper) increased by an astonishing 83,900 percent.
In its battle to retain political legitimacy, the Chinese Communist Party has announced that it will sacrifice growth for development quality. It realizes that raising the GDP growth bar is no longer adequate and has launched its own version of the New Deal by introducing ambitious reforms and hiking spending on affordable housing, social security, healthcare, and education. If China's leaders bungle this massive undertaking, it will spell trouble for the country's state capitalist system.
If they get it right, the next five years, covered by the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP), could prove to be the most transformative in modern Chinese history. As Beijing attempts to extend the social safety net to cover all of its 1.3 billion people, it could reshape China's economic landscape by furthering urbanization, bolstering domestic consumption, creating a better-educated workforce, and improving social stability. There are two simultaneous goals: preserve the legitimacy of the political system and contribute to the country's economic re-balancing.
For a nominally communist country, China's lack of a social safety net is somewhat ironic. When Beijing dismantled the country's communes and privatized state-owned enterprises in the 1980s and 1990s, China's ‘iron rice bowl' welfare system collapsed. The national savings rate rose during the 2000s as Chinese households struggled to pay for increasingly expensive housing, healthcare, and education while putting away enough for retirement. Ordinary citizens had little choice but to deposit their savings into state-owned banks, earning negative real returns. The savings glut fueled the country's export- and investment-driven model, but household consumption lagged.
This model seemed to work until the global financial crisis shook Beijing out of its complacency. After several abortive attempts at reform over the past decade, China's leaders finally seem committed to mending the country's broken social safety net. The government plans to construct seven million affordable housing units in 2012 alone-the project is estimated to cost 1.3 trillion yuan ($198 billion) and aims to make 20 percent of the housing market "affordable" by 2015. Last year it implemented regulations that will provide basic pension and insurance coverage for all citizens and ramp up spending by 21.9 percent to 575 billion yuan ($91 billion). A new set of health care reform goals were set in the 12th FYP: universal health care, drug pricing reform, and public hospital reform. The 2012 appropriation for healthcare is 203 billion yuan ($32 billion), an increase of 16.4 percent from 2011. Education spending is slated to expand by 16.4 percent to 378 billion yuan ($60 billion). For more details, refer to the Ministry of Finance Budget Report for 2012.
Yet pushing through reforms will prove a significant challenge for China's fifth generation of leaders. The window for reform is rapidly closing and implementation will be hindered by entrenched interests and bureaucratic inefficiencies at the local level. China's economic growth is slowing and its demographic advantage is fading. The government acknowledges that while its revenues are projected to shrink, its expenditures will expand in order to finance these new entitlement projects. The Communist Party risks losing political legitimacy and will confront growing social unrest if these efforts stall or fail. Political reforms may be the only way to create a civil service capable of administering these programs effectively (and without corruption). Having recognized that headline-grabbing GDP growth isn't enough, China's political system will have little to fall back on if it can't make this New Deal work.
Jiakun Jack Zhang is a researcher in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice.
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