Lawmakers began deliberating the first constitutional guarantee of a comprehensive social security system Monday, calling it a key policy to ensure that each citizen gets a fair slice of the country's tremendous economic growth in the past two decades.
The draft amendment to the Constitution, submitted to the ongoing second session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC), takes in many unprecedented changes, including a new item stipulating that "the state should establish and improve a comprehensive social security system in line with the economic development."
"A country cannot solely pursue economic development, just as a cook cannot only care about the size of a cake. How to cut up the cake is also a question," said Zheng Gongcheng, a member of the 10th NPC Standing Committee.
Zheng, also professor with the School of Labor Relations and Human Resources under the People's University of China, considered it was because of the dramatic changes in social conflicts after China carried out the reform and opening-up policies that the social security issue was finally brought to the spotlight.
"Though China has stepped out of poverty, the gaps between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural areas, and among different regions are expanding. The conflicts between employers and laborers, and between the migrant rural population and city dwellers are also worsening," Zheng said.
Statistics show that 80 percent of Chinese laborers and old people receive no pension insurance, and 90 percent of the total population do not enjoy basic medical insurance. There has not been any fixed mechanism to subsidize poor people in rural areas.
Liu Suhua, a professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), said the country's 900 million farmers would become the largest group of beneficiaries to the imminent change in the Constitution.
"The current social security system only covers city residents. But when it is written in the Constitution, it will ensure every Chinese citizen can enjoy equal rights in this regard," Liu said.
She believed a comprehensive social security system was also a reflection and guarantee of "respect and protection of human rights", another new amendment to the Constitution, and would drive the government to focus on services rather than administration.
Xia Xueluan, a professor with the sociology department of Peking University, hailed the social security amendment as "absolutely good news", considering the increasingly severe unemployment problem in China.
The urban registered unemployment rate in the country reached 4.3 percent by the end of 2003. With a population of some 1.3 billion, China will have an extra 400,000 unemployed people if the rate increases by 0.1 percentage point.
Sociologists consider the jobless worse than farmers, as farmers "at least have some land to grow grain for food".
"A comprehensive social security system" mentioned in the amendment was not an empty concept, said Xia, adding it should include unemployment insurance, pension insurance, medical insurance and temporary subsidy.
He said the approval of the amendment would accelerate the formulation of related laws and regulations, and predicted the law on unemployment would be brought to the legislation agenda soon after the NPC's 10-day session this year.
People can enjoy their constitutional rights only with protection of specific laws and regulations, such as those concerning pension insurance, medical insurance, social welfare, as well as matching implementation, management and supervision mechanisms, Xia said.
China's Constitution has undergone three overhauls since its promulgation in 1982. The approval of the Constitutional amendments requires a two-thirds overwhelming majority of the nearly 3,000 deputies to the NPC.
(Xinhua News Agency March 10, 2004)