Public services need to be fair, balanced
By Chi Fulin (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-03-14 07:17
The three decades of economic reform has led China into a new stage of development in terms of its society and economy. With the country advancing with more vigor, many problems and challenges have emerged.
One of the issues calling for urgent attention is the rapid growth in the demand for public goods and services, and the slow pace in the supply of them.
Although the central government has implemented a series of policies to improve the quality of public services and extend the coverage of these services, opinion is divided on the importance of these services to balance demand and supply.
The rapid increase in the demand for public goods and services is a result of social progress, which has transformed the Chinese society from a subsistence one to a development-oriented one.
Before this transformation, the biggest pressure on most people was how to maintain a basic living standard. But now, they need something beyond food and clothing.
Statistics prove this. The expenditure of an urban resident on food, clothing and other necessities comprised 67.61 percent of total expenditure in 1990. In 2006 it had dropped to 46.15 percent.
Education and medical care comprised 10 percent of an urban resident's total expenditure in 1990, in 2006, it had risen to 30 percent.
The change in consumption suggests that demand has shifted dramatically in the structure and quality of public services.
The social transition in China has modified the relatively simple social structure under the planned economy into a complex one in line with the market economy. With the increasing demands of different groups, a satisfactory provision of public services is a challenging mission for the authorities.
Social wealth must be tackled to see that it is fairly distributed so that all citizens enjoy public services equally. It must be extended.
Currently, our public services do not cover all residents, it is not diversified enough, and provision is imbalanced in different regions. The most fundamental reason is that the public services system has not been well implemented.
The shortage in its provisions is often attributed to inadequate financial support by the government.
But actually, there is no rule stipulating the proportion of funds that should go toward public services by the State. Thus, it is natural the public services cannot meet demand.
As to the imbalanced provision of public services in the rural and urban areas, it is the consequence of the old urban and rural dual-structure system which draw a clear line between rural and the urban citizens in almost all aspects of social life.
One of the country's most important missions should be to integrate the development of the rural and urban areas both economically and socially.
A public service system with universal coverage is an important part of this integration. Migrant workers are in most urgent need of such a system.
Moving away from their rural home, migrant workers take up jobs in industry or services in the cities. With their official identity remaining as farmers, these workers do not enjoy equally the public services offered in the cities.
Their salaries are lower than the urban dwellers; most of them are not covered by the social security system, and their rights and interests are not properly protected. Meanwhile, their children cannot enjoy the same education as their urban peers.
Therefore, this could be a starting point to correct the imbalance in public services in the rural and urban areas.
Another important step is to launch an assessing mechanism for public services.
Improvement of the people's lives has topped the agenda of governments at all levels, but such a task is difficult to measure with statistics. Many local officials are still concerned with GDP growth and investment projects, which are important elements in the assessing system of officials' performance.
The officials could devote more of their energy and time into improving public services if a data system is established to evaluate the quality and quantity of public services and this should be considered in the official assessment.
When a mature system of public services established, it would play an important driving force in the sustainable development of the society.
Improved public services in education and health care would step up the capabilities of the labor force as a whole, and hence improve efficiency and resource utilization.
When the people feel they are better taken care of by the State, they will have less concerns about their retirement, and their children's education costs. Thus, they would be able to save less and spend more, which could become a strong stimulus to economic growth.
Improving public services is also an effective way to promote social justice. When it covers all citizens, it guarantees the livelihood of low-income groups and helps reduce poverty in the urban and rural areas. Many social conflicts could also be lessened, and the society advances in a more harmonious way.
The author, a member of the National Committee of the CPPCC, is executive president of the Hainan-based China Institute for Reform and Development
(China Daily 03/14/2008 page9)