Saturday, March 11, 2006

STORY BY BECKY

THE WEEK AHEAD

CHINA

Amid Growth, Waiting for Reform
By REBECCA BLUMENSTEIN
March 11, 2006; Page A2

On Tuesday, China's Premier Wen Jiabao will hold a rare news conference to mark the closing of the annual session of the National People's Congress. His remarks will come after nearly 3,000 delegates of the national legislature gather in the Great Hall of the People to cast their votes on a plan for China's economic development over the next five years, among other measures.

Here's a safe prediction: The final tally will be nearly unanimous -- a sign China's political system is still changing far more slowly than its economy.

China is now estimated to be the world's fourth-largest economy. Last year, its 9.9% economic growth, plus a revision of earlier figures, pushed the size of its economy past those of Italy and France -- and maybe beyond that of the United Kingdom.

Such leaps are rare in history, and no other country has grown so fast for so long. The economy of the world's most populous nation now stands behind only those of Germany, Japan and the U.S. China also is playing an increasingly prominent global role in a broad range of areas. It has achieved this feat by unleashing market forces on its formerly state-run economy, starting a quarter century ago under Deng Xiaoping.

Many in the West assumed that as capitalism opened up unprecedented opportunities in China, democracy would soon follow. But that hasn't happened.

China's failure to implement any significant political reforms remains a sore spot in U.S.-China relations. In its annual report on human rights last week, the U.S. State Department blasted China on a range of concerns, from political suppression to torture and censorship.

Many inside and outside China had hoped President Hu Jintao and Mr. Wen would push for more political liberalization. But with so many urgent social needs -- and growing signs of unrest among China's 800 million farmers and others left behind amid a growing wealth gap -- the government simply cannot afford the luxury of political reform at this time, says Shi Yinhong, a professor of International relations at People's University of China.

"Political reform in China is totally different from what the Western world wants us to do," says Mr. Shi. "It does not mean Western-style elections, it does not mean Western-style general elections, it does not mean Western-style freedom of the press."

There are a few signs of progress, if faint by Western standards. Democratic elections are happening at the grassroots levels. Millions of Chinese are moving to the middle class and enjoying freedoms they once only imagined. Even though the legislature still puts on a supportive face for the Communist Party's agenda, observers say the debate behind closed doors often is heated.

The political changes some demand of China may take another 10 to 20 years, says Dan Rosen, principal of New York-based China Strategic Advisory, which advises U.S. firms on China issues. But, he says, to suggest political reform "hasn't begun belies a dangerous ignorance and severe lack of historical vision."

Write to Rebecca Blumenstein at rebecca.blumenstein@wsj.com