- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

BEIJING — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao promised yesterday to make China’s authoritarian political system more accountable to the people and sought to allay concerns about the country’s rising military power.

His comments came after the country’s annual session of parliament closed with the passage of a landmark property rights law.

At his annual press conference, Mr. Wen recited poetry and the sayings of an ancient Chinese statesman to illustrate the people’s desire for social justice and Beijing’s wish for detente with regional rival Japan. He pledged to improve the lives of poor farmers and workers — who thus far have not shared in China’s stunning economic boom.

“The speed of the fleet is not determined by the vessel with the fastest speed but by the vessel traveling the slowest,” Mr. Wen said. “The well-being of the whole society cannot be improved unless the lives of the most vulnerable groups are improved.”

Even on foreign affairs, Mr. Wen played down any friction. A test of an anti-satellite weapon in January — in which a ground-launched missile shot down an orbiting Chinese weather satellite — was not a sign that Beijing wanted an arms race in space, he said. He repeated China’s call for an international convention banning weapons in outer space.

Hefty outlays for the armed forces, with the military receiving a nearly 18 percent increase this year, put China’s defense spending below that of most developed countries, he said.

Mr. Wen acknowledged that China’s political system needs an injection of public accountability, especially to deal with endemic corruption by officials that has fed public anger and that he said was growing “more and more severe.” He called for unspecified reforms that would create greater transparency in decision-making and curb abuse of power.

“It is particularly important that we need to make justice the most important value of the socialist system,” he said.

The national legislature ended its annual session yesterday with the 2,889 delegates giving near-unanimous approval to a budget that increases spending on health, education and social security programs. Delegates also passed a private property law that is supposed to protect farmers and urban homeowners despite opposition from some communists who saw it as a threat to state control.

The prime minister tried to persuade the audience that democracy was not alien to China and that Chinese society was becoming more democratic, though the process would be different than in other countries and would take decades to reach maturity.

“In my view, democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, equality and fraternity are not something peculiar to capitalism, Mr. Wen said. “These are also the common values that we as human beings all pursue.”

On the economic front, Mr. Wen noted that despite four years of double-digit, low-inflation growth, the economy was overly dependent on investment and exports, instead of consumption. That imbalance has left China flush with money but also raises the potential for careless investing, he said.

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