"Any small problem multiplied by 1.3 billion will end up being a very big problem, and a very big aggregate divided by 1.3 billion will come to a very tiny figure," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao thus described his feeling as head of government in this world's most populous nation.
The Premier's "population-based division and multiplication," first made public in an interview with The Washington Post last November in Beijing and repeated in a Harvard speech during his US visit in December, came at a time when the whole world was marveling at China's "economic miracle" -- an average GDP growth of over 8 percent for 25 years, and 9.1 percent for 2003 alone despite the adverse impact of an unexpected SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in the first two quarters.
"The Premier's calculation, simple and frank, reflects the new administration's clear understanding of the country's reality," said Dr. Ma Xiaohe, director of the industrial development research center under the State Development and Reform Commission.
In 2003, the first year of China's new leadership in office, the country's GDP exceeded US$1.4 trillion to rank sixth in the world, but if divided by 1.3 billion, the per capita GDP was just a bit more than US$1,000, which put China somewhere between the 130th and 140th place in the world, said Ma.
Prof. Wang Tongsan, director of the Institute of Quantitative and Technical Economics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that after more than two decades of sustained high economic growth, China now entered a crucial stage where some knotty problems had emerged to undermine the country's development potential.
One major problem was that the country's high GDP growth was largely based on an over-consumption and even waste of resources, and was often achieved at the cost of the environment, said Wang.
Though contributing less than 4 percent to the world's economic aggregate, China was responsible for about one third of global steel and cement consumption in 2003. "Not only China itself, but the world as a whole, will find it impossible to support such kind of growth in a long run," said Wang.
Chinese sociologists also found that the high economic growth had failed to bring as many substantial benefits as expected to the majority of the people. There was a shocking difference in the development level between the country's coastal east and western hinterland, and a yawning income gap between rich and poor, urbanites and farmers. While consumers' spending desire remained weak, employment, education and health care often stirred up public concerns and complaints.
"Fortunately, China's new generation of leaders, with modest, prudent and truth-seeking personalities, maintain sober minds and never underestimate any problems," said Prof. Liu Shaojie with Jilin University in northeast China.
In February, Premier Wen made a lengthy address to urge his cabinet ministers and provincial leaders across the country to "firmly endorse and earnestly implement" a "scientific concept of development." He defined the new development approach to be pursued as one that "combines economic growth and social progress," and "promotes a coordinated, balanced development between cities and the countryside and between different regions," as well as one that is environment-friendly and therefore "sustainable."
"The adoption of the new development concept will force many officials, especially those at the local level, to abandon the outdated belief that GDP means everything," said Wang Tongsan. "While GDP remains an important development index, other factors, such as employment, education, science, culture, health care, social security and social justice, are of equal importance."
Economists predict China is likely to set its GDP growth target at a moderate level this year to highlight the new development concept. More importantly, the GDP growth shall be quality-oriented rather than quantity-oriented, and must be able to be materialized into concrete gains of the people, Wang added.
Since they took over the reins of the country, China's new leaders have impressed many with their "figure sensitivity" as they always keep a close watch at even the smallest fluctuation of economic and social indexes. Premier Wen himself was once described by a former Swiss ambassador to China as having a "computer-like brain with many statistics stored in."
As last year's SARS outbreak kept many rural migrant workers at home for months and led to a 35-yuan (about US$4) shrink in cash income for each farmer on average in the second quarter, the central authorities immediately decided to compensate the farmers by cutting agricultural taxes and facilitating skill training, job hunt and payment guarantee for rural laborers.
Early last month, the central leadership took a further, significant step and issued a policy document aimed at boosting farmers' income and guaranteeing agricultural development. It is estimated that by cutting taxes and offering subsidies to grain growers, the new policy will help farmers gain at least 20 billion yuan (US$2.5 billion) in economic benefits.
"More than two thirds of China's population live in the countryside, and just as the Premier says, any problem multiplied by 900 million becomes a really big one," said He Kaiyin, a senior government advisor in east China's Anhui Province. "There will be no sustained, coordinated development of the country without development in the countryside."
(Xinhua News Agency March 4, 2004)