A senior US State Department adviser on East Asia says China's leaders face the daunting task of trying to bring stability to a society that is quickly fracturing even as the economy booms.
Washington's challenge is to push Beijing to respect citizens' rights while encouraging it as it moves from developing to developed country, Special Assistant for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Keith told a congressional advisory panel examining US-China relations on Thursday.
"China's economic miracle is unfolding at a high cost," Keith told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, "not just in terms of environmental degradation and public health, but also in terms of an erosion of social and ethical values."
"From our perspective, unless they tap the full potential of their people, unless they allow the exercise of various expressions, they won't be able to succeed with their goals" of making China into a developed world power, he said.
China's rapid transformation has exposed, and sometimes created, serious problems for its 1.3 billion people, he said.
Despite 26 years of average annual growth rates of 9.5 percent, the country still faces desperate poverty, Keith said, with a per capita income of about US$1,700. US per capita income was estimated in 2004 at about US$40,000.
More than 200 million Chinese live on less than US$1 a day, Keith said, and people in cities have four times the income of the 800 million Chinese living in the countryside.
Keith also told the commission that China's official figures counted 87,000 public protests last year, up from 74,000 in the previous year.
The sometimes violent protests arose from anger at environmental degradation and official misdeeds, ranging from uncompensated land seizures to arbitrary and illegal taxes to failure to pay back wages and pensions, he said.
China's leaders were aware of those problems and others such as deteriorating healthcare and social services -- and in many cases were getting help in tackling them through US government programs, Keith said.
But China's crushing of dissent and other "backward steps" such as a clampdown on the Chinese media, Internet debate and nongovernmental groups represented a fundamental divide between Washington and Beijing, he said.
"We believe they need to protect fundamental freedoms. Clearly the Chinese have a different view of this," said Keith, who toured rural China last month.
Another top US official cited Chinese repression of unrest as a major area of disagreement.
"China's rise may be hobbled by systemic problems and the Communist Party's resistance to the demand for political participation that economic growth generates," US intelligence chief John Negroponte said.
"Beijing's determination to repress real or perceived challenges, from dispossessed peasants to religious organizations, could lead to serious instability at home and less effective policies abroad," he said.
But Jerry Clifford, an official with the US Environmental Protection Agency, praised Beijing's efforts to recognize that more needs to be done to fight a massive pollution problem.
He said China would overtake the US as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases within 25 years.
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