Many small improvements make a harmonious society (和谐社会)?

June 2, 2008, [MD]

It was great being back in Hangzhou, where I spent half a year in 2004. Already, Hangzhou was known as one of the most beautiful cities in China, and the local citizens were very proud of it. Coming back this time, my friend told me of many small changes that in different ways improved the citizens’ lives. The library, which was already a great resource the last time I was here, abolished their 30 yuan/year fee for obtaining a library card, and also allows you to enter the library with your backpack, which was not allowed earlier.

They have started a system of free city bicycles - similar to what they do in for example Paris. It’s not as smooth as it could be yet, borrowing a bike requires an ID card, and a 300 yuan deposit, and the worst part is that the bicycle has to be returned to the place where it was borrowed. However, there are stations all around the West Lake area, and some others in the city core, and the first hour of borrowing is free. If you want to borrow it for longer, it’s only about 1 or 2 yuan per hour. Although this is a relatively new program, I saw many people enjoying a bike ride on a sunny Saturday around the lake.

I would love to know more about the development of health insurance programs in China, but my friend told me that all children in Hangzhou are automatically covered, and most adults with proper jobs receive coverage through their companies (my friend is self-employed, and pays about 100 yuan per month). This health insurance does not cover all costs, but it provides a “ceiling” for annual health expenditure at 1500 yuan, after which health care becomes free. This is incredibly important, because the newspapers are full of stories about families that go bankrupt and end up in destitution, because on of the family members fall seriously or chronically ill.

I also read in the newspaper that there were now projects to extend the health insurance that farmers in Sichuan receive for a very low price, to hospitals out of the province. Many farmers from Sichuan go to Beijing or Shanghai to work, and if they fall sick there (or have an accident), they often cannot afford to get treated in Beijing, and have to take the train back to Sichuan to get treated. Now, at least two hospitals in Beijing have signed an agreement with Sichuan province, and will honor Sichuan health insurance. Clearly, health insurance is at an early stage in China, but I still think all these different moves are incredibly valuable to citizens.

Primary schools in China have long been supposed to be free, but this has not been the case in practice, with schools charging all kinds of extra fees, and depending on these to stay open - thus excluding many children, whose parents cannot pay, especially in rural areas. From last year, it seems that the policy of free primary schooling, followed by increased transfers from the government, has finally been carried out, and all the schools I talked to in rural China said, with considerable pride, that the school now was completely free (including textbooks, but excluding 10-20 RMB per year for note books), and that enrollment was virtually hundred percent.

There are lots of problems in China, and innumerable challenges. Certainly I would like to see more freedom of speech, less blocking of the internet, and many other things. But as I write this, sitting on a modern and clean train that does Hangzhou to Shanghai in 160 km/h, and I think about what I mentioned above, and also what I wrote earlier about the greening of China - I also see a huge amount of positive developments, large and small. And I see many “democratic” governments in the world that are doing a lot less to benefit all their citizens. I can completely understand why the West’s complete lack of understanding or appreciation of this, can frustrate and anger Chinese who are tired of being scolded and belittled. Let us keep criticizing the bad things, but let us also celebrate the good things.

Stian\ PS: Harmonious society (和谐社会) is a term introduced by Hu Jintao to denote that Chinese development will focus more on the social development of all citizens, and not just blindly on GDP.

Stian Håklev June 2, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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