Senior leaders of the Communist Party opened a crucial Central Committee session Saturday focusing on ways to narrow a gap between rich and poor that has broadened dangerously in China during 25 years of sweeping market reforms.
More than 350 delegates from party organizations across the country are attending the four-day meeting, which is providing a high-level forum for a growing belief within the party that China's swift economic liberalization has left too many people behind, particularly in the countryside, where more than half of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants live.
The unbalanced growth has led to widespread dissatisfaction among farmers and laid-off workers used to socialist-era benefits that have long since disappeared. In addition, the party's alliance with private business, often accompanied by bribery, has embittered many Chinese who were taught that the party stood for social equality and helping the poor. Increasingly, the dissatisfaction has been exploding into violent protest and rioting, becoming a threat to stability and a major concern for President Hu Jintao's government.
Hu, who is also the party leader, has largely endorsed the concerns about social equity and made them his own, calling for a "harmonious society" with increased attention to people who have failed to benefit from economic liberalization. The 25-member Politburo, which he heads as general secretary, last week listed these concerns as an important topic for the Central Committee, urging that the country "pay more attention to social fairness."
Hu's goals -- modulating the market reforms but not abandoning them -- will probably be reflected in the 11th Five-Year Plan that will be adopted by the Central Committee as a map for social and economic development in China from 2006 through 2010, according to academic specialists with connections to the party.
In some ways, the document will also serve to distinguish Hu's three-year-old leadership from that of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who retired a year ago from his last party post as head of the powerful Central Military Commission. Jiang presided during an era when China concentrated almost exclusively on economic growth, now 9 percent a year, without much regard for those who suffered from the dislocation caused by the market transition.
Observers have suggested that Hu, in addition to shifting that emphasis, may also seek to consolidate his leadership with some high-level personnel changes, ridding senior party ranks of leftover Jiang allies and promoting his own proteges to influential posts. With the meeting proceeding in secret, his success in this regard will become known only in announcements after the meeting ends Tuesday.
Despite Hu's displays of concern, it is unclear what can be done to help the poor. Several party economists have said China is passing through a stage of economic development in which many people are going to be left behind, raising the danger of unrest until the wealth spreads more evenly.
A glimpse of what the government envisages came in the People's Daily, the official party organ, as the Central Committee began its closed deliberations. A front-page article titled "Taking the path of scientific development" suggested that Hu is not contemplating drastic changes but has put his faith in better management, as implied by the slogan "scientific development."
The article reviewed China's recent economic development and noted that life had improved for all classes of Chinese society, including farmers, as a result of the changes. But problems have cropped up in the past two years, it said, adding that China must make "macroeconomic adjustments" in the next stage so the machine runs more smoothly.
"We firmly believe," it concluded, "that under the leadership of the Communist Party, with Comrade Hu Jintao as its secretary general and following the guideline of scientific development, China will certainly continue to move forward along the path toward economic transformation and a relatively well-off society, breaking through the waves with a good wind and its sails spread wide."