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Saturday, Aug. 7, 2004


Creating a more caring China

HONG KONG -- China under President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji astounded the world with its economic growth, reflected by a substantial increase in gross domestic product year after year. Yet the current leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are making it clear that they have a somewhat different emphasis.

The new leadership has presented itself as a more caring government and advocated what it calls a scientific concept of development. Instead of blindly focusing on GDP growth, the emphasis is on "people-centered" development.

Wen, in his report to the 10th National people's Congress in March, said his government would "make development our top priority" but would at the same time "adhere to the scientific viewpoint of development" and would "put people first."

Subsequently the official People's Daily reported a delegate as saying "from details, we could see the gradual change of government work style. The country's direction has shifted from GDP-centered to people-centered."

The "people-centered" concept was touted by the People's Daily as "a human-centered scientific concept of development featuring humanistic governance and comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development of the economy and society." It has been praised by Zhou Jue, president of the China Society for Human Rights, as of significance in the improvement of human rights protection in China.

The People's Daily, in an authoritative commentary, virtually elevated the Hu-Wen leadership to the same level as the pantheon of communist leaders by saying: "The scientific concept of development is a Marxist concept of development that keeps pace with the times and is in the same strain with the important thoughts of Comrades Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Zemin."

The shorthand phrase used by Chinese officials for this concept is yi ren wei ben, which is usually translated as "putting people first" or being "people-centered." The term has been used repeatedly by both Hu and Wen.

China's leaders are making clear that the "people-centered" principle has practical applications. In Beijing last week I was informed that when Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing made representations to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on July 26 regarding the assault on a Chinese tourist at Niagara Falls, he had done so at the behest of Hu.

The tourist, a 37-year-old businesswoman from Tianjin named Zhao Yan, had been pepper-sprayed and beaten by a U.S. border inspector who thought she was part of a group of drug smugglers. The inspector has been arrested.

So concerned is the Chinese leadership over human rights, I was told, that the president has informed Chinese embassies around the world that they have to do everything they could to protect Chinese citizens, even if they were illegal immigrants who had violated the law. This admonition arose in the aftermath of a tragic accident earlier this year when 19 Chinese drowned while picking cockles in Lancashire in the north of England.

In principle, attaching value to human life, in particular to the life of individuals, is important and China deserves praise for doing so. In the past, there had been too much emphasis on the nameless, faceless "masses" while individuals were played down.

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