Watching the ups and downs of China’s current legislative session has me depressed about the state of American politics. Compared to the broad-reaching, idealistic yet pragmatic, and above all pro-active policies coming out of a ‘backward’ and supposedly inferior autocratic government America appears to be ossified (a word commonly applied to Communist political systems) and unresponsive.
That’s clearly a bit of an exaggeration, but while American government certainly functions better on a day to day basis China seems to be doing better with that favorite political buzzword, progress. Take some of the policy positions announced in the last week:
On housing, where exorbitantly high prices is probably the greatest daily complaint from everyday folks, the government announced, a massive plan to build 10 million new subsidized housing units in 2011. And then 10 million more in 2012. The plan will cost almost $200bn.
On healthcare, the government promised to expand the budget and coverage of universal public insurance. In 2009 the government started a plan to cover the whole population, claiming to now cover 1.27 of 1.34 billion citizens. The system is divided with separate urban and rural systems, which are undoubtedly not equal. Also the government only has the equivalent of 200RMB, about 30 dollars, per person to spend on health insurance and admits people can’t rely on it to cover all of their expenses. Still, that 200RMB is up from 120 last year, a massive per person increase.
They’ve also continued to reform the registration system that classifies people as either urban or rural and thereby defines what public services they are eligible for. This has left migrant workers from the country living in the city without equal access to services. The government promised to make it easier for migrants to get an urban registration. Guangzhou, a major city in the south, started a move toward abolishing the distinction last year, and this year two major cities in the west, Chengdu and Chongqing, just took big steps opening up urban services to millions of workers in the last few with a promise of millions more to come.
More on the equality front, the Congress promised to address growing income inequality. One senior deputy was quoted, “We hope that through legal readjustment, social wealth will be distributed in a fairer way and shared by everyone.” There’s even talk of using a ‘happiness index’ instead of GDP. That’s France talk.
Then there’s government transparency. Symbolically, the government released the budget for the National People’s Congress meeting itself at the request of a journalist. They also promised more transparency and have started requiring departments and provinces to release their budgets. Granted, the publicly available budget is extremely general, listing only 18 categories of expenditure. The government also committed to accountability on the purchase and use of government vehicles, a massive expense and a privilege considered widely abused.
There’s also a massive energy policy focused on reducing CO2 output per unit of GDP that comes with big time funding for efficiency projects and alternative energy. Of course, they still plan to use coal at unprecedented levels.
That’s a huge plan, and it seems to be focused on truly public goods. There’s an obvious gap when it comes to legal reform that could promote an independent judicial system, and political reform is similarly, though less surprisingly, left off the agenda. And it’s important to note that these are just the happy pronouncements of the media event that is the National People’s Congress. Achieving the goals will be another thing.
It’s also true that looking at these policies shows a government that is just getting started building modern governing institutions on a big level. Transparency efforts, for one, are starting from practically nothing and health insurance coverage is limited too say the least. There’s a long way to go to reach the kind of effectiveness of day to day government in America. But for all that, they seem to be not just pointed, but going, in the right direction.
America in contrast has effectively no energy policy, will wait until 2014 to begin implementing health care reform, if at all, and passed financial reform that avoided addressing the issues of conflict of interest and compensation incentives on Wall Street. And when was the last time you heard a major American politician talk about fighting income inequality? I don’t want to read the news anymore.