In his opening speech on the first day of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Oct 18, General Secretary Xi Jinping said China has entered a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the main contradiction in Chinese society is no longer the gap between people’s wants and the limits of social production; instead it is “the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. This signals a paradigm shift in the Party’s assessment of its main challenge.
For a long time the Party believed its main challenge in improving people’s living standards was the deficiency of production. After nearly 40 years of spectacular growth, however, China is now the world’s second-largest economy, its per-capita income is more than 10 times what it was 40 years ago, and the Party’s centennial goal of establishing a well-off society by 2020 will soon come true.
However, the fruits of economic growth have not been evenly distributed across the population. And although China is a much more affluent society today and the skylines of many Chinese coastal cities dwarf those in Europe, income and wealth inequality has greatly widened and many people in inland provinces’ rural areas have just about managed to move into safer houses.
Also, high economic growth has come at the cost of the environment: Smog has become a frequent phenomenon in the North China plains, surface and ground water has been contaminated by industrial wastes and ecosystems have been impaired in many areas.
This is precisely the gap “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. For most Chinese people, “a better life” no longer merely means higher income; it also includes a more equitable distribution of wealth, a just society and cleaner environment. As such, Xi’s statement makes it clear the Party is now ready to narrow this gap, because it will focus not only on growth but also on building a more harmonious, equitable, just and eco-friendly society.
China has been already making efforts to achieve that goal. Under Xi’s direction, poverty alleviation has gained momentum, as he has emphasized targeted poverty reduction for individual families, which is different from the past focus on reducing poverty at the county level. And the decline in the poverty rate from 10 percent five years ago to 4 percent today reflects that Xi’s plan has been effective.
Besides, with the substantial increase in the central government’s fiscal transfer to inland regions, income is now growing faster in inland provinces than in coastal areas. These changes have reduced overall income inequality, with the Gini coefficient of household income declining from the peak of 0.491 in 2008 to 0.465 last year.
More important, the anti-corruption campaign has, to a large extent, restored social justice. The aim of the anti-corruption drive is not just to punish corrupt officials, but also to deter potential offenders. Befittingly, Xi also said on Oct 18 that more robust institutions will be introduced to fight corruption.
Environmental protection is high on Xi’s agenda too. As part of the structural adjustment plan announced two years ago, factories that fail to meet the environmental standards are being forced to close, because the government has never been more serious about environmental protection. Along with pollution reduction, many cities have begun to take measures to restore the ecosystem, even investing huge amounts for the purpose. As a result, there is real hope among the people that they will get to enjoy blue skies and clean water again in the future.
The CPC was established as a party to build a more equal and prosperous society. The Party still carries that conviction despite the ups and downs in its history. In the last 40 years, the Party has made greater efforts to build a prosperous society. The CPC National Congress has unfolded a new era in the Party’s effort to achieve the goal of building a prosperous, but more equal, just and eco-friendly, society.
The author is Cheung Kong Scholar and Boya Chair Professor, and the dean of the National School of Development, Peking University.