By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 7:05 AM
BEIJING - Spooked by uprisings against autocracy across the Middle East, China sought Saturday to showcase its stability with a grand display of political choreography and a leadership pledge to rein in inflation, combat corruption and "improve all facets of public security."
In a ritual unchanged for decades despite China's dizzying economic and social transformation, the National People's Congress, the country's largely rubber-stamp parliament, opened its annual session in the Great Hall of the People, a relic from the Mao Zedong era decked with red flags.
For all the retro trappings, however, Premier Wen Jiabao kicked off the assembly with a "government work report" focused on pressing present-day concerns - notably rising prices, particularly for food and housing. Fighting inflation, he said, is "our top priority" as "this problem concerns the people's well-being, bears on overall interests and affects social stability."
Rising prices have been a major focus of discontent in the Middle East during recent protests, and they helped fuel China's last explosion of political unrest, the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Addressing nearly 3,000 legislators gathered just off Tiananmen, Wen outlined a raft of measures to help ordinary people, promising to "steadily increase the minimum wage," expand welfare programs and "resolutely regulate the real estate market."
China's ruling Communist Party has staked its survival on its ability to deliver tangible economic benefits, something that Arab dictators failed to do. In his speech, Wen set the country's economic growth target this year at "around 8 percent," a level that is likely to be exceeded. China fixed the same target last year and the economy expanded by more than 10 percent, the largest growth of any major economy.
"We will comprehensively improve the people's well-being," Wen told delegates, who ranged from ethnic minorities wearing elaborate headgear to People's Liberation Army soldiers and billionaire businessmen.
Chinese officials have repeatedly stated that their country's authoritarian but economically vibrant system has nothing to fear from the spectacle of dictatorships crumbling in distant Arab lands. Yet officials have mobilized massive resources to chase what at times seem to be little more than phantoms of unrest.
Anonymous calls on the Internet for Chinese to rally each Sunday in protest, in Beijing and other major cities, have brought out throngs of uniformed and undercover police, but few actual protesters. Foreign journalists have been harassed and, in a few cases, beaten. Human rights groups estimate that scores of dissidents and lawyers have been detained or confined to their homes.
China's so-called "jasmine rallies" are inspired by Tunisia's January uprising, the first in what has since become a region-wide convulsion. There is no sign that most Chinese want to follow Tunisia's example, but the heavy-handed response of authorities has played into the hands of the mysterious organizers of China's so-far nonexistent revolt.
In a message released earlier this week, they called for more rallies this Sunday, declaring that "a modest number of people, just by walking, have demonstrated the people's power, and the government's response has revealed its weakness to the world."
China's parliament, which meets only once a year in full session, is largely a ceremonial affair, but it sets the country's political tone and government priorities, bringing into the open decisions taken in secret by the Communist Party. This year's session, which ends March 14, is particularly significant as it will approve a new Five-Year Plan, China's economic road map through 2015.
A new budget made public Saturday includes a hefty boost in spending on "public security," which is due to get more money than the military. This means that China's fight against internal threats commands more cash than that against potential enemies from outside. According to figures released in the annex of a report presented to parliament, China' "public security" budget this year is $95 billion, 21.5 percent more than in 2010. The defense budget will rise by 12.9 percent to $91.5 billion, though most foreign experts believe this understates the true size of China's total outlays on defense.
The extra money for security will help cover the cost of deploying overwhelming force against the most feeble signs of public dissent. This policy of swamping even non-existent protests now seems to be going into force nationwide, from Beijing's ritzy Wangfujing shopping district to impoverished areas in western China. In parts of Gansu and Qinghai provinces inhabited by ethnic Tibetans, for example, police were out in force for the start this weekend of the Tibetan New Year.
The new five-year plan aims for annual economic growth of around 7 percent, a pace that, if met, would mark a slowing of the economy. The government wants to tamp down growth as part of efforts to control prices and also to re-calibrate China's economy so that it relies less on exports and more on domestic consumption.
Wen, who is also a member of the Politburo standing committee, also told the National People's Congress that China needed to combat "excessive concentration of power and lack of checks and balances, and resolutely prevent and punish corruption." This follows the recent purge of a powerful railways minister accused of pocketing multimillion-dollar bribes.