China Aims To Slow Growth, Pollution

Traffic jam, Beijing, China, 7-15-05
China is aiming for slower growth, more widely spread prosperity and a cleaner environment following years of frenzied industrialization, senior economic planners said Monday.

After years of 9 percent-plus annual growth, China has set a target of 7.5 percent growth per year through 2011, boosting "national strength" and not just total output, said Ma Kai, minister in charge of the Cabinet's main planning agency.

The government's latest five-year economic blueprint, announced in connection with the annual session this week of its figurehead parliament, is part of a strategy aimed at closing the gap between the affluent urban elite who have profited from two decades of capitalist-style reform and China's poor majority.

But it also reflects growing alarm over the high costs of China's boom: fouled waterways, villages heaped in litter, cities shrouded in smog.

"We all want to breathe more clean air," Ma said. "We do not want to pay too big a price tomorrow for growth today. If that is the case, it is not real development."

Such five-year plans, a communist-era throwback, have lost much of their significance, but are still closely watched as an indicator of government goals.

This year's differs from those of the past, said Ma, who is chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.

For the first time in decades, the leadership distributed a draft to local governments and other groups and asked for recommendations, some of which were adopted, Ma said.

"The outline reflects the general will of the public," he said.

While economic targets are general goals, targets for improvements in the environment and public services such as education, housing and medical care will have to be met, he said.

China's focus for the next five years will be on upgrading industries and improving their competitiveness, not expanding them, Ma said.

"We have highlighted the human approach and are considering the vital needs of the people," he said.

The ultimate aim is to improve the lives of China's 1.3 billion people, said Zhang Zhixin, a vice minister at the commission.

Average per capita rural incomes in China, at $400 per year, are less than a third those in the cities. The gap is unlikely to change much in the near future; the five-year plan calls for rural incomes to rise to $530 by 2010, while urban incomes will still be about three times as high, at $1,660.

"The gap is not just measured in economic indicators, but what is more important, in terms of public services and living standards," Zhang said, emphasizing that the government is determined to make a difference.

Still, China will have to keep growing fast to ensure there are enough resources to go around, Ma acknowledged.

"To raise living standards and resolve problems, we need a better economic foundation," Ma said. "We need to make our economy a bigger cake."