Han Lihua, a National People’s Congress deputy and mayor of Qitaihe, a former mining hub in Heilongjiang province, was on a special mission when he arrived in Beijing for this year’s NPC meeting.
Han was keen to lobby a very special NPC deputy, Premier Li Keqiang, for funds to rebuild houses in an area of Qitaihe that is home to more than 140,000 households, but is plagued by severe subsidence that can cause buildings to collapse and allow poisonous gases to leak into the atmosphere.
Like many former mining centers in China, Qitaihe is struggling to cope with decades-old environmental damage caused by the overexploitation of resources as the country embarked on it’s program of breakneck economic growth.
On March 9, Han shared his concerns with other NPC deputies from Heilongjiang, a resource-rich industrial hub, and Premier Li, who joined the meeting to learn more about the issue. At the conclusion of Han’s address, Li instructed officials to “work out a plan” and “settle the problem by the end of our term in office”.
Li said no one person can be held responsible for the problem because the subsidence is the result of an unbalanced industrial structure that was in place before the Communist Party assumed power in 1949: “The people are innocent, and it is unwise to blame history. We have to look forward and ensure people’s safety.”
The decision to rebuild houses in areas of severe subsidence was one of many issues Li encountered when he joined panel discussions during the two sessions.
Traditionally, members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC－the country’s seven-member ruling body－attend meetings of NPC deputies and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference during the two sessions.
This year, the premier started with some familiar faces－a delegation from Shandong province, where Li himself is a deputy, before meeting delegates from Jiangsu and Sichuan, two prosperous provinces, and then listening to comments from deputies from Heilongjiang and Hebei, which are both badly underdeveloped.
During a series of meetings, Li promised government support to rectify a pension shortage in Heilongjiang, reduce overcapacity in sectors such as flat glass and cement by increasing the volume of exports, and to allow Sichuan to build the next Sino-Singaporean industrial park to attract foreign investment.
Zhao Zhenhua, an economist at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said it was hard to say if Li cherry-picked the delegations he met this year, but the combination of provinces offered a full and rounded snapshot of the Chinese economy: As a long-standing economic engine, coastal Jiangsu province has seen thousands of small businesses established during the past year, while Sichuan is the largest economic growth engine in China’s inland western region.
“Production overcapacity, the most significant issue in China’s economic restructuring, is most evident in Hebei province, and Heilongjiang is one of the provinces that suffers most from outdated industries and excessive exploitation of resources,” Zhao said.
“How can small and medium-sized companies shake off financial difficulties, and how can large State-owned companies tackle falling international demand and lower commodity prices during the process of domestic restructuring?” she said. “Should the development of the economy be put ahead of industrial restructuring, or vice-versa?”
Zhu Lijia, a professor of the National Academy of Governance, said that the comments and commitments Li and other central government leaders made at the panel discussions point the way forward for provincial areas experiencing economic difficulties.
What Li said during the two sessions:
With CPPCC members
The premier responded to a report that Chinese tourists to Japan often buy toilet seat lids to bring home. He called for an open attitude to the trend and for the acceleration of the upgrading of the domestic sanitation industry. “If the toilet seat lids are of the same quality, at least the consumers can save the air ticket.”
With NPC deputies from Shandong province
With the exception of confidential statistics, all government data should be made public to facilitate cloud computing and to allow the public to advise the government in the decision-making process, Li said.
With NPC deputies from Jiangsu province
Many fiscal and monetary policies have yet to be employed. The government will take steps if the economy slumps further, Li said.
With NPC deputies from Sichuan province
“I have a proposal from all the female deputies of the panel. Today is International Women’s Day, and we would like to invite Premier Li to be part of our group photo,” NPC deputy Zhao Ping said on March 8.
Female lawmakers from Sichuan province, who were in Beijing for the annual session of the National People’s Congress, invited Premier Li to join them in marking International Women’s Day.
With NPC deputies from Hebei province
Li said production overcapacity is not necessarily a problem, and excess goods could be transferred either to the underdeveloped western areas, or to overseas markets in need of cement, flat glass and steel: “I have told government officials that Hebei is the top choice in the transfer of excess production to overseas markets.”
With NPC deputies from Heilongjiang province
A deputy from the Hezhe ethnic group displayed photos of the rebuilding work in a flood-hit area in her hometown.