Beijing hikes internal, external security spending as it vows to mend social ills

Reuters and AFP, BEIJING

Wed, Mar 06, 2013 - Page 1

The Chinese government yesterday announced an economic growth target of 7.5 percent for this year and a double-digit increase in military spending, as it vowed to tackle corruption and improve the quality of life at the opening session of the National People’s Congress.

Outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) also pledged to protect China’s “territorial integrity” as the government announced another double-digit rise in military spending to modernize the world’s largest standing army.

Asian neighbors have been nervous about Beijing’s expanding military and the latest rise in spending could reinforce disquiet in the region.

Democratic Progressive Party spokesperson Lin Chun-hsien (林俊憲) said China was being two-faced.

“China has been stressing a peace agreement with Taipei and portraying a peaceful image, but its high military budget and provocative actions in the East and South China seas disputes run contrary to this image,”she said

Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, India, the Philippines and other nations have challenged Beijing over claims to swathes of territory. Over the past six months, China’s standoff with Taiwan and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — in the East China Sea has become more acrimonious.

In his final major act after a decade in charge of day-to-day governance, Wen presented a “work report” to about 3,000 delegates at the opening of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament.

The parliament is meeting for nearly two weeks and will finalize a power transfer to Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) as Wen’s successor. It will also appoint Chinese Communist Party chief and Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) as president to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).

Wen bowed deeply to the representatives arrayed under a giant red star in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People before starting his 1 hour, 40 minute-long farewell speech

He began with a list of achievements during his time, among them manned spaceflight, China’s first aircraft carrier, its own satellite navigation system, a high-speed rail network and the 2008 Olympics.

Public concern about a range of problems including corruption, pollution and skewed economic growth is mounting on the country’s lively social media scene as the chasm between rich and poor widens.

The new leadership has raised expectations with a deluge of propaganda during its first four months running the party, with vows of cleaner government and more devotion to people’s livelihoods.

The wealth of party leaders at all levels has become a burning issue in China, with foreign media reports last year focusing on the riches of the families of Xi and Wen.

Outside the hall, ordinary citizens were skeptical about the government’s promises.

“What is the point of all these wasteful, expensive meetings when there are so many poor people in China?” pensioner Xian Lan asked.

China’s economy is a key driver of the global recovery, but has struggled in the face of weakness at home and in overseas markets.

It grew 7.8 percent last year, the worst performance in 13 years, but normally exceeds the target set at the parliamentary meeting. Wen said the target for this year was about 7.5 percent, “a goal that we will have to work hard to attain.”

Meanwhile, although announcing a double-digit rise in military expenditure, China’s defense budget will be exceeded by spending on domestic security for a third consecutive year, highlighting Beijing’s concern about internal threats.

Spending on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will rise 10.7 percent to 740.6 billion yuan (US$119 billion), while the domestic security budget will go up at a slightly slower pace, 8.7 percent, to 769.1 billion yuan, the budget showed.

The numbers underscore the party’s vigilance not only about territorial disputes with Taiwan, Japan and other Asian countries, and the US’ “pivot” back to the region, but also about popular unrest.

The number of “mass incidents” of unrest recorded by the Chinese government grew from 8,700 in 1993 to about 90,000 in 2010, several government-backed studies show. Some estimates are higher, and the government has not released official data for recent years.

“It shows the party is mor concerned about the potential risks of destabilization coming from inside the country than outside, which tells us the party is much less confident,” Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas Bequelin said. “A confident government that is not afraid of its population doesn’t need to have a budget for domestic security that is over defense spending.”

Still, China’s defense spending is contained at about 5.4 percent of total expenditure, up from 5.3 percent last year, and stayed at about one-fifth of the Pentagon’s outlays. However, even with its worries about domestic problems, Beijing has become more assertive.

Wen said the government “should accelerate the modernization of national defense and the armed forces ... [and] should resolutely uphold China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and ensure its peaceful development.”

China has repeatedly said the world has nothing to fear from its military spending, which is needed for legitimate defensive purposes, and that the money spent on the PLA pales in comparison with US’ defense expenditure.

The Pentagon’s base budget is US$534 billion.

“It’s not good news for the world that a country as large as China is unable to protect itself,” parliament spokeswoman Fu Ying (傅瑩) said.