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Social equity, a pressing task for China

(Xinhua) Updated: 2012-09-12 18:40

BEIJING - Ensuring equitable treatment among 1.3 billion people is an arduous task, but one that has become more urgent for China after decades of explosive economic development and growing concerns over income and social disparities.

Public cries for equal rights and equal access to social goods and services have grown ever more audible in recent years, thanks to greater public awareness of rights protection, technological advances that have allowed 500 million people in China to access the Internet and the government's willingness to hear public opinions.

Over the weekend, President Hu Jintao said China will "make efforts" to phase in a system for ensuring social equity that will feature "equal rights, equal opportunities and equal rules."

Over the years, authorities have made continuous efforts to bridge social gaps, but to truly achieve equality, observers say, China has a long way to go -- it needs to further curb officials' power abuses, ensure fair play, further improve the social welfare system and narrow the income disparity.

Wu Zhongmin, professor at the Party School of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, said the first and foremost challenge for China is to further contain corruption.

Wu's comment echoed the wider opinion that some corrupt officials have tainted the reputation of the entire CPC, and only by exposing and punishing these black sheep can the ruling power of the Party be enhanced.

In fact, China has launched round after round of anti-corruption campaigns in recent years, sacking high-level officials such as former Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun and former Party Secretary of Shanghai Chen Liangyu.

In an important speech in July given ahead of a key national congress of the CPC, President Hu, also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, listed unswervingly fighting corruption as one of the efforts that must be continued to promote Party building.

To ensure fair play, China must make lasting efforts to educate its people, especially its officials, on abiding by laws and regulations, step up supervision over law enforcement and further reform the judicial system.

The web of relations -- nepotism in English or "guanxi" in Chinese -- is also a key obstacle in building a state of "equal rules," as it often causes asymmetric information access among different social groups and unequal participation in establishing rules.

Wu also pointed out that the government needs to further prioritize public investment in social welfare sectors, including employment, housing, education and health and pension coverage.

To boost employment amid the backdrop of a sluggish global economy, the government should create easier access to loans for small and medium-sized companies and cut their tax rates.

This calls for a more flexible mechanism to set borrowing interest rates and direct some financial resources toward establishing grassroots-level lenders.

In the housing sector, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development announced Monday that China invested 820 billion yuan ($129.4 billion) in building affordable housing units for low-income groups in the first eight months of this year.

The next step should be to ensure that these affordable housing units are distributed to those genuinely in need, not to those with "guanxi," as has already occurred in a number of cases.

The government has expanded its free compulsory education system to cover both rural and urban areas, covered more than 95 percent of the total population with healthcare insurance and rolled out pension schemes to include more rural residents.

However, there are still restrictions for migrant workers' children hoping to sit college entrance exams in cities and for pensioners to benefit from the scheme in places other than where they paid into it.

Another important measure for boosting social equity is to narrow income gaps. The average disposable income for Chinese urban residents in 2011 was 21,810 yuan, while rural residents earned an average net income of just 6,977 yuan.

In the countryside, the total income of the top 20 percent of households last year was more than 10 times that of the bottom 20 percent, according to Central China Normal University's Center for China Rural Studies.

To bridge income disparities, efforts are needed to raise the proportion of labor payment in the GDP, encourage self-employment and improved skills and further regulate the income distribution order to avoid alarmingly high payments in monopolized industries.

This, in the end, is aimed at creating an ideal olive-shaped income distribution model with a sizable middle-income group.

"When all these issues are tackled, we can say equity is achieved," said Prof. Wu.

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