Loory: The Communist Party of China, 73 million members strong, met in Beijing last week for its 17th Party Congress to consider a program that will guide the country for the next five years. The Communist Party rules China and is more important as a source of policy and leadership than the government. It operates mostly in secret, and its directives are not easily challenged. Hu Jintao, China’s leader, derives his real power as party general secretary, but he is also president and commander-in-chief of the military. Hu opened the meeting with an upbeat speech, discussing all the progress that China’s economy has made in the past five years. But he did say that one goal for the coming five years would be some economic shift from capital investment to improving the lot of consumers. That was taken as an acknowledgement that the benefits of economic progress in China were not trickling down fast enough to the Chinese people, particularly in the provincial areas. The party and state-controlled press have portrayed the Congress as an exercise in democracy. There were articles about how open media coverage of the meeting was because some 3,000 journalists from China and abroad were covering it. But the important decisions at this meeting will be made behind closed doors and may not be revealed to China and the world. How important is this meeting, and what is the outcome likely to be?
Shaowen Lin, director, Russia and East Europe Division, China Radio International, Beijing: It is one of the most important conferences for the country economically, politically and socially because it will devise a blueprint for development for the next five years. It will decide how the economy should proceed and how political reform should be carried out. It should also decide who the leaders of the next generation should be.
Loory: What import does this have for the rest of the world?
Joseph Kahn, Beijing correspondent, The New York Times, Beijing: The rest of the world is tied into China’s economy. The decisions that are made can affect everything. It can affect macroeconomic policy in terms of the increase in investment versus what they do to try to stimulate consumption in the economy. That can affect China’s trade balance. In the long term, the rest of the world is very interested in how China is going to resolve some of its disparity between the progress that has been made on the economic side of the ledger and the stagnation or lack of innovation on the political side.
Loory: Is there any indication from this Congress that China is going to make progress on that?
Kahn: There isn’t much going on in terms of experimentation with serious political reform. There are tweaks on the margin intended to convey a greater sense of openness and transparency. In practice, the decision-making process remains almost 100 percent opaque and secretive. There is no democratic process in China, not in a way that a Westerner would understand it.
Lin: However, Hu is promising that he will bring new elements from political forces outside the Communist Party to take cabinet level and other high positions. That indicates that other political forces are joining closely with the ruling party in decision making.
Loory: How is this meeting being viewed in England and the rest of Western Europe?
Paul Reynolds, world affairs correspondent, BBC, London: This meeting is a stock-taking one, and people in Europe see China as set on a particular course. China’s peaceful rise will continue. In fact, China has risen. It matters pretty well-prominently in every area of international, economic and diplomatic life. China is forging a new path for the world, which is going to increasingly be important.
Loory: What impact has the Congress in China had in the United States?
David Greising, reporter, Chicago Tribune, Chicago: This is clearly an important Congress. One statement that will resonate on a number of levels in the U.S. is the revised economic outlook that Hu laid out, tying economic growth through 2020 to per capita gross domestic product instead of setting the overall goal of quadrupling the economy from the year 2000 to the year 2020. China had been sending signals that it was aware of the problems of too-fast growth and was trying to constrain that. This is a signal that the Chinese are going to continue to pull out all the stops on economic growth and continue to let the engine hum at full throttle.
Loory: Environmental problems in China appear to be severe, and they affect not only China but also the rest of the world.
Kahn: Environmental problems have built up over the last 20 years. But it’s only been in the last two or three years that people have begun to think about the nature of China’s overall development model and the price the Chinese have to pay in terms of environmental degradation to maintain very high rates of GDP growth. The leadership had set some targets for reducing energy consumption as a percentage of GDP and trying to control emissions. To date, they haven’t met those targets, and there’s concern about the gap between the leftover elements of central planning that these targets represent and what is really happening on the ground in terms of rapid expansion, investment and industrial growth. The jury is still out as to whether China can change its environmental and pollution picture based on its current trajectory.
Lin: At the same time, we have seen new approaches toward this issue. Environmental protection on state levels is making a bigger noise, and people are expressing concern. A growing number of officials who neglected the problem of environmental degradation are losing their jobs. In Beijing, we’ve seen an introduction of policies shifted from private cost to public consumption. Prices on the subways are very cheap. Following Paris’ introduction of its bicycle program, Beijing also has a similar program. Some factories that are considered to be heavy polluters have been moved out of the city to increase the possibility of clearer skies. The environment situation is a little bit better than last year but is obviously still very severe.
Loory: What is being done in the U.S. to control unsafe products from China being sold here?
Greising: The Food and Drug Administration is getting new resources to enforce its rules and regulations. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is also going to get additional resources to enforce and execute recalls when they’re put in place. The biggest impact, though, will be companies going back to China, looking at the factories that are making their products, finding out what that red paint on the shelf really is and whether it has lead in it or not.
Loory: How do Europeans feel about China’s environmental problems?
Reynolds: Europeans are pretty confident in electronic goods from China, but less so in toys and personal products. People have gotten used to the idea that China is a huge industrial producer. It’s part of the new reality of China’s presence in the world. Trade with China will be something for the future. China has to be brought into the world trading system in ways that it hasn’t yet really tackled yet.
Loory Afterword: The United States is wrapped up more than a year before the election in who our next president will be. The election will impact world affairs. The men selected at the Chinese Communist Party Congress to compete for Hu’s job will potentially have more impact on world affairs than our next president. Hu’s successor will be chosen in secret by a few anonymous men.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.