Currently in China, it is generally acknowledged that many diverse interest groups exist. In a recent study carried out by the Guangzhou municipal government, experts pointed out that more representatives from disadvantaged groups should be included into the national political structure to help all the people fully express their opinions, needs and ideas.
On November 9, 2007, a workshop was held in Guangzhou to probe into the system in order to balance various interest groups and form a harmonious society. Zhu Xiaodan, Party secretary of Guangzhou and member of Guangdong Party Standing Committee, initiated this study. Scholars engaged in social sciences from all over the country and relevant government officials from Guangzhou attended the workshop. According to Zou Dongtao, editor-in-chief of the Social Sciences Academic Press and researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the study seems rather "ahead of its time".
Currently in China, it is generally acknowledged that many diverse interest groups exist. Public opinion, however, differs widely on how to categorize these groups and just how competitive they are regarding each other. The Guangzhou study in some sense shows that the Chinese government, or at least some local governments inside economically developed areas, is working hard to find solutions to keep the interests of different groups well balanced.
Views of pioneer researchers
According to a study team at the Guangdong University for Business Studies, Guangzhou has five powerful interest groups: a group containing monopolized powers, a group with privileges, a group engaged in renting businesses, a group living on grey incomes from intermediary services, and a group of enterprises that have completed their initial accumulation of capital. Now all of these groups are expected further strengthen their power of acquiring other interests. Take the real estate industry for example. In 2006, five of the 15 real estate tycoons of China were based in Guangzhou; the city boasted the largest number of heavyweights in the housing market. Professor Wu Jiaqing, leader of the study team and president of Guangdong University for Business Studies, asserted that it was not precise to divide powerful interest groups into five categories. Nevertheless such a division was a comparatively accurate reflection of the real situation.
According to another study team at the Guangzhou Municipal Party School, people with higher incomes also possess more resources in cultural, political and economic fields. With stronger economic power, they prefer to seek cooperation with political and cultural elites. The study team concluded in their report: "People with higher incomes have stronger influences in the adoption and implementation of public policies, as well as in the formation of public opinion."
In this report, the disadvantaged people are also divided into five categories. They are: laid-off workers, migrant workers, the disabled, farmers deprived of lands, and retirees. A survey indicated that in 2005, migrant workers in Guangzhou totaled some 5 million people, each with an average annual income of 11,000 yuan (US$1,506). Of them, 51 percent had an income below 800 yuan per month.
Furthermore, in a survey on Guangzhou's income distribution structure and local residents' feeling of fairness, 76.4 percent of the respondents said the gap in wealth in Guangzhou was "extremely wide" or "comparatively wide", while in sharp contrast, only 2.2 percent felt that the gap was narrow or no gap existed at all. In respond to the question: "What is your view on the wealth gap?" 17.2 percent said it was rational, with 44.4 percent feeling the opposite.
According to Professor Wu Jiaqing, people at lower social levels tend to have a stronger sense of unfairness. Completely at a loss in the current society, they deeply believe that there must be something unjust that leads to their misery.
On the other hand, people in the five powerful interest groups are usually content with their lives. Most of them feel that the distribution system is fair. Entrepreneurs in the private sector, in particular, believe they deserve their current wealth and power; it is a reward for their strenuous efforts in the past. They argue that they have made great contributions to society by paying taxes to help create more job opportunities. They firmly believe society will suffer more without them. However, among these powerful interest groups, there are also some people who empathize with their peers who, they think, have been working equally as hard but who have earned much less.
To the question on what leads to the wealth gap, 42.6 percent of the respondents chose "different personal capabilities", 40.4 percent "corruption", 38.7 percent "industrial monopoly" and 33.8 percent "faulty legal system".
When being asked about government policies that protect the interests of people having middle and low incomes, only 11.5 percent felt satisfied, while 45.3 percent were dissatisfied and 43.1 percent said that they were merely satisfied.
Based on the above figures, the study team at the Guangzhou Municipal Party School concluded that Guangzhou was in danger of witnessing imbalanced distribution of social interests. In some specific fields, there are hidden contradictions between different social groups, making them highly likely to generate unexpected incidents. The team suggested that the government take effective measures to curb the imbalanced distribution. Otherwise, "society may become polarized and chaotic".
How does the distribution system go imbalanced?
The report of Guangdong University for Business Studies starts with this paragraph: "Economic interests are basic interests for human beings. Therefore, the key to building a harmonious society is to maintain harmony in regard to economic interests. In most cases, an imbalanced society suffers more conflicts and contradictions in distributing economic interests."
The imbalance of interest distribution in China emerged in the early 1990s. Professor Wu Jiaqing attributed it to the change in government policies. At that time, "allowing some people to get rich first" was the only choice to create more social wealth. The government had lofty plans in building a well-off society, establishing a social welfare system and building a comprehensive social security system. But all of these plans needed money. Given this situation, China had no choice but to go through the initial period of capital accumulation. What's more, when China started to set up its market economy, the private sector was weak and governments at various levels had to take the charge of exploring business opportunities.
For Professor Wu, the government's dual role during the initial days is a major factor for the current imbalance in distribution. Today, in some places, governments are still closely associated with capital funds. This has led to many problems in such fields as land requisition, resident resettlement and reform of State-owned enterprises.
To properly address the problems, the government must stay aloof from business sectors and dedicate itself solely to public service. A competent government should be a neutral organizer of negotiations and an impartial judge of social disputes.
All over the world, many countries suffered from huge wealth gaps but managed to narrow them down to a rational range. But Professor Wu pointed out that these changes did not happen spontaneously. Governments are obliged to intervene and direct this course. The well-known "Latin American phenomenon" is a typical result of laissez-faire.
For Wu, the imbalance in interest distribution is not irrevocable, but it requires a huge amount of hard work. In the past, people were more concerned about distribution results and hence developed a strong demand for reforming the country's economic system. However, Professor Wu said, if the country's political, educational, healthcare and social security systems remained unchanged, "there will be no equal opportunities, no equal starts and no equal processes, and therefore, there will be no equal results."
Currently, the most urgent problem in China is how to address the subsistence problem for people existing at the bottom tier of society. In developed countries, although there is a clear divide between the rich and the poor, people at the bottom level need not worry about food and clothing. But in China this still remains a huge problem. "During the past two years, the government has made more efforts to help the rural population and disadvantaged groups in urban areas. Unfortunately, the government's power is limited. At present, the most important issue revolves around increasing the investment toward improving the social security system for disadvantaged groups and in establishing the basic educational and healthcare systems in rural areas," said Professor Wu.
Rise up to the challenge
On October 11, 2006, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China approved the Resolution on Some Major Issues Concerning Building up a Harmonious Society. The document pointed out that China was going through "drastic changes" regarding their economic system, social structure, interest structure and social ideology respectively. Of them, the change in interest structure indicated that the public interest appeals were growing stronger, more diversified and more complicated. With fast social development, social interests were divided into several categories and people with similar interest appeals formed a variety of interest groups. These groups differed from each other in their aims and powers. They vied with each other to influence the public policies so as to achieve some particular goals.
In China, many people hold negative opinions about interest groups. In their eyes, interest groups always try to lobby or influence the government so as to achieve their private aims. In the western world, however, the term "interest group" has no negative connotation. Instead, it is an indispensable part of democracy, because political policies and public decisions should be made amidst the competition between various interest groups. Only when all interest groups have the equal opportunity to express their wills can a government acquire sufficient information for scientific decision-making. In addition, when a government is in close contact with a diversity of interest groups, it will feel the pressure from all sides of the society and thus work harder to keep itself within bounds.
It is indeed a basic rule that every interest group is pursuing maximum self-interests. However, their pursuit will be strongly protested by other interest groups if they go too far. Under such circumstances, no interest group can do what they want freely. In order to acquire as much power as possible, an interest group will try to gain the support and consent of the other groups by offering them concessions and special benefits.
Currently in China, the problem is that there are not enough channels for the public to express their needs. On one hand, the disadvantaged groups are suffering from a rather small voice in society, while on the other hand, powerful interest groups, possessing various resources, are capable of influencing political decisions and public policies. Their interests are guaranteed by the current political system and their powers grow stronger with the support of political decisions and public policies. In some particular cases, the powerful interest groups have gone as far as "captivating" the government to adopt policies obviously in favor of their private interests.
Therefore, before the competition of various interest groups eventually rises to the surface, a system should be set up to restrict their powers. Otherwise, the open competition of different interest groups will put a spoke in the wheel of China's reform and opening up.
With regard to the government, Professor Wu Jiaqing pointed out there should be stricter policies on taxation and corresponding measures for surveillance, so as to ensure a balanced distribution of social wealth. Furthermore, the government should adopt more labor laws and raise the entrepreneurs' awareness of social responsibilities, thus maintaining a harmonious relationship between labor and capital.
In order to change the current situation, more representatives of the disadvantaged groups should be included into the national political structure. In the election of delegates to the National People's Congress, measures should be taken to ensure that the proportion of delegates to rural population is the same with the proportion of delegates to urban population.
Concerning China's specific conditions, it is urgent to develop a mechanism in line with other international practices, in which the disadvantaged group can express their wills and pursue their interests freely.
In modern society, well-organized interest groups are effective in expressing their needs, because it is impossible for the government to talk with individuals one after another. With this regard, Professor Wu Jiaqing suggested "great efforts should be made to help the disadvantaged groups set up or reform their own organizations, such as labor unions, farmer's associations, chambers of commerce, teacher's associations and legal societies, and these organizations should bear the responsibility of representing their members to express their wills to the government."
(China.org.cn by Chen Xia, January 18, 2008)