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Can People-centered Reform Work?

By Zhao Xiao

The concept of people-centered reform was first presented at the third plenary session of the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It was an important step forward on the road of reform, leading us to reflect on its ultimate goals.

People-centered reform has two characteristic emphases: reform for the benefit of all the people rather than for a fraction of them, with the rest remaining spectators to the drama; and reform satisfying all the needs of people rather than a portion, including such non-economic ones as political, cultural (religious) and environmental needs.

The concept of people-centered reform makes breakthroughs in at least four areas. First, it is a manifestation of the improvement in the abilities of the Chinese Communist Party to lead the country in its reform and opening. It demonstrates that the government is a government for the people, of the people and by the people. Based on the long-term goals, overall situation, and basic needs of all the people, people-centered reform will be of great help in improving governmental functionality, efficiency, honesty, justice, credibility and service.

Moreover, the concept is a manifestation of the change of reform orientation, from giving priority to efficiency at the expense of equity to balanced attention, or even some priority given to equity. This means that more attention will be given to people with little education or low income, to let them share in the harvest of the reform. At the same time, efforts to build a social security system will be strengthened and public products and services will advance.

People-centered reform is also a manifestation of change in focus from material needs to overall needs of people. It seeks comprehensive material, political and spiritual development, including such elements as religion, morality and culture.

Last, it is a manifestation of change in the platform for reform: the government power structure. It moves from centralization to establishment of a clear boundary between public and private rights, marking the start of the process of establishing a modern property rights system and reforming government administration.

Each of those breakthroughs is important in its own right. However, from the wider perspective of a civilization's transformation, the concept of people-centered reform cannot in and of itself completely correct the errors that China has made in its reform. It can even create more errors in the long run.

Throughout most of China's history, official rank has been considered to be the sole criterion of one's worth. This is bound to distort the people-centered system to some extent. Until the power structure transformation discussed above actually materializes, the people-centered system will remain subject to the government official-centered one and not genuinely centered on the people.

Additionally, the inherent weakness of people-centered reform -- focusing on expansion but ignoring the fact that some restrictions on perceived needs are necessary -- will create problems over the long term.

We must be aware that the contexts in which Westerners and Chinese talk about people-centered systems are not the same. For Chinese people, the opposite of people-centered is government official-centered or power-centered; for Westerners, it is God-centered. However, Westerners, after going through two world wars, decided that people-centered systems are wrong, and these have thus declined in the West.

However, Chinese people, while familiar with modern Western civilization, tend to be less aware of the changes that have taken place in the post-modern version. For example, many people know of Nietzsche's famous utterance in The Gay Science, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him," which expresses the desire to replace the ages-old God-centered system with a people-centered one.

But few Chinese understand the post-Nietzsche thinking of Westerners, who have come to realize that environmental degradation and bloody world wars are in part the result of the people-centered system and the insatiable desires of humankind. They have learned that lesson the hard way. They have begun to see that human beings, with all their frailties, cannot be the center of our planet or the universe. In the West now, the majority of people are strongly opposed to the idea of a people-centered system.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that the idea of people-centered system is an important step forward for the Chinese people. It becomes even more important in a society where the traditional concept of a power-centered or government official-centered system is so deeply rooted. But when viewed from the perspective of the transformation of Western civilization, we see that there is a need to restrict gratification of perceived need. The reason is simple: human nature is both good and evil and some needs and desires are reasonable while others are not. The idea of a people-centered system that raises the status of human beings to that of the god will raise the status of their evil as well as their good. This harms other human beings, both in their home country and abroad, and the environment as well.

The awe of nature is lacking in the Chinese people and the awe of the free market is lacking in government officials. The root reason is the lack of a belief system that demands primary concern for humanity. Rather, the Chinese people adhere to the concepts of self-centeredness and self-interest. In this context, the weakness of China's reforms becomes conspicuous: political and legal reforms lag far behind economic ones; reforms in such fields as beliefs, morals, and culture are simply absent. For convenience, we refer to those areas in which reforms lag or are absent as "non-economic fields." Economic and non-economic fields must serve as the two legs of reform, with both of them being essential. Reform of one field while ignoring the other creates lameness. People-centered reform can alleviate that lameness to some extent, but not completely.

Zhao Xiao is a postdoctoral researcher with the China Center for Economic Research  of Peking University and head of the Macro-strategy Department, Economic Research Center, of the State Council's State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. His research areas mainly include macro economy and policy, restructuring of state-owned enterprises, and market tracking and forecasting.

(China.org.cn, translated by Ni Xiaoqiang, June 7, 2004)

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