Faced with a growing gap between rich and poor and mounting environmental problems, the Chinese government is set to abandon its blind pursuit of gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
In the past 25 years, China has achieved an economic miracle with average GDP growth of above 8 percent every year. However, as GDP has become the main standard, or the only standard in some regions, to evaluate the government's performance, many local officials have turned a blind eye to development in other areas, including medical care, education and cultural and environmental protection.
Threatened by worsening imbalances, the central government has proposed a scientific concept of development with more attention being paid to rural and social development and environmental protection.
Premier Wen Jiabao has said the scientific development concept focused on coordinated and sustainable economic and social growth, while pushing forward the reform and development drive to coordinate advances in both urban and rural areas and in different regions.
GDP cannot fully reflect the relationship between economic development and the environment, and the environment and people, says Niu Wenyuan, chief scientist on sustainable development strategy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Some economic growth can bring about harmonious development of the economy, society and environment, but it comes at a cost to the environment and also leads to a waste of resources. However, GDP always ignores the difference between high-cost and low-cost outputs, Niu points out.
"A large part of China's GDP growth is achieved by exploiting resources and interests that should have belonged to our children," says Niu.
Niu states that the official average 8.7 percent GDP growth rate from 1985 to 2000 should have been reduced to 6.5 percent if social and ecological costs were taken into account.
"The cost of one US dollar in output in China is four to 11 times that of developed countries," he says.
"If the current high-cost growth and serious pollution continue, China will face a heavily polluted environment and a serious shortage of natural resources in the near future, which would not support its future development," agrees Pan Yue, vice director of the State Environmental Protection Administration.
Pan says his administration is trying to include environmental protection as a major factor to evaluate the performance of local officials.
Ma Kai, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, has said the government is considering slowing the country's GDP growth rate to 7 percent this year to cultivate a scientific approach to social development.
Some municipality- and provincial-level governments, including Beijing, Shanghai, south China's Guangdong and east China's Zhejiang, have decided to take into account costs related to the environment, natural resources and social development in their reckoning of economic growth, using a new concept of “green GDP.”
The booming Guangdong Province has decided to lower its GDP growth target to 9 percent this year from 13.6 percent in 2003.
"We have to change our thinking concerning economic growth," says Jiao Yuejin, an official from central China's Henan Province. "The shift will hopefully help the government spend more on this society's weaker links."
(China Daily March 5, 2004)