The 17th Party Congress is in full swing. While many issues are competing for attention on the agenda, several seem sure to take top billing.
For example, the very intense focus that the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have placed on bridging the growing chasm in wealth between the urban rich and rural poor is expected to be at the fore of discussions on new directions for the nation. The government's strategy for closing the gap has been to call for scientific development, a wiser, more measured and efficient use of the nation's resources and environmental patrimony, in short, smart growth.
This is a much needed corrective balance to the unfettered sway of market forces unleashed in the initial stage of reforms and opening up.
The real challenge is how to achieve this balance? One key lies in understanding the people's problems and their expectations of government. People everywhere want a better life, especially for their children.
They aspire to financial security, but also want a safe, secure, and healthy environment in which to enjoy it. They want fair and equal treatment under the law.
In an effort to improve the work of the government, several initiatives have been launched in recent years focusing on government accountability and responsibility in meeting people's needs.
While there is much that the government can and should do to achieve its own strategic goals, it cannot accomplish this task alone.
The Party plays the key role, as it is members of the Party that are the key decision makers who determine the nature and quality of the nation's development. Only the Party can set the terms and criteria under which government officials' performance is reviewed and evaluated.
Several hundred years ago, Adam Smith coined the term "invisible hand" to explain the mechanism by which economic self-interest guides individual's decisions to produce collectively beneficial outcomes.
We have seen the power of this force in driving China's explosive economic growth. Can the same power be effectively turned to creating a harmonious society? Yes, if the Party sets clear incentives that reward officials whose governance exemplifies scientific development.
Fortunately, there are ready practical criteria that can be applied. We do not need to collect new statistics, invent new metrics, or create new scientific breakthroughs.
We can simply ask if the nation's laws and regulations are obeyed within each official's jurisdiction.
Officials presiding where all companies comply with environmental laws and regulations would be rewarded and marked for promotion within the Party. Pollution would go down in these regions and people's welfare would go up with less sickness and death. These regions would be better able to secure new investment as attractive places for people to work and raise their families.
There is no chasm in the shared plight of poor environmental quality faced by both the urban rich and rural poor in today's China, only differences in the degree of woefulness.
Everyone recognizes that China cannot sustain its current resource intensive, highly polluting economic development path.
Scientific development is a practical alternative that would continue growth while enhancing environmental quality. Only the government can effectively act to protect the environment, but only the Party can act to be sure that government officials face incentives to act.
This Congress should enshrine scientific development as the guiding course for China both in the constitution and in the Party's personnel management.
The author is Chief Economist of the Environmental Defense
(China Daily 10/18/2007 page11)