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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 20:42 GMT
Tianjin's mayor: A man with a plan

By Paul Mason
Business Correspondent, Newsnight

Paul Mason talking with Mayor Dai Xianglong
Paul Mason meets Mayor Dai Xianglong, who's been given the go-ahead to build an entire city on the north-east coast of China. And he meets ordinary people from Tianjin, worried about what the brave new future holds.

Tianjin was captured by the British in 1860 and hasn't been quite right since. The ruins of the eight separate Treaty Port concessions stand side by side with slums the Chinese emperors built and glittering skyscrapers constructed under Deng Xiaoping.

The city seems half-built and without a physical centre - and while it's China's third biggest, economically it has fallen behind others built from scratch during the market reforms.

Master plan

But now it's got a new mayor: Dai Xianglong, former governor of China's central bank, rising member of the Central Committee - and a man with a mission.

"The goal is to turn Tianjin into the economic centre of the Bohai Sea Rim and an international port metropolis," he says.

"The most important measure is to develop the new coastal area - this includes the port, the economic development zone and the free trade area. Last year the port handled 200m tons of cargo - and was the 10th biggest in the world - by 2010 capacity should reach 300m tons. That is the master plan for Tianjin."

A picture from the streets of Tianjin
To build his new infrastructure, Mayor Dai needs money
If it works, it will create a whole new city by the sea, an economic dynamo to rival Shanghai, and Shenzhen in the south.

If all this sounds like a market-driven version of the old communist central plan, with its targets and slogans, you have grasped the essential contradiction of Mayor Dai's Tianjin, and of China itself.

To build the brand new infrastructure, Mayor Dai needs money. In the past, because of its association with the liberal faction of China's leadership, Tianjin found itself at the back of the queue - it applied 16 years ago to set up a new private bank; the application has repeatedly been refused. Enter Mayor Dai, with good political connections, and the application has been granted.

Street vendors

But not everyone is happy with the brave new future for Tianjin. I met a street vendor selling hot corn-on-the-cob from a cart. In the freezing weather, business is brisk. She's built it up over 10 years since she was made redundant.

A picture from the streets of Tianjin
Not everyone is happy with the brave new future for Tianjin

But Mayor Dai's plan decrees all this must end: there is to be a flyover, and her corn cart will have to go.

"Because the government wants to improve the outlook of the city, they're going to stop us selling things in the street in the future. In fact, it is illegal to sell here now," she said.

"Although they prohibit street sellers, we can't help it. We have to make a living. We can't survive without food!"

Mayor Dai says he's prepared to create new places for the street vendors to go - but they'll have to come out of the black economy and register as proper businesses. The vendor I met thinks it's not likely that those in power will listen.

"We are too small and too far away from people with their social status. The leaders will listen to each other. But they probably won't listen to us ordinary people."

The narrow streets and tiny houses of the old slum districts - where some of the brickwork is 300 years old - have an emblematic status: they are to China's Communist Party what the Welsh valleys are to Labour.

Mayor Dai's plan calls for their total clearance. But many of the residents say they will not leave: even with compensation, they can't afford the rent in the new flats Mayor Dai is building.

There's not much they can do - but they can withhold their enthusiasm. And all over China, that's what the Communist Party is worried about.

Education drive

In January, the Party ordered all 68 million members to undergo compulsory re-education.

"It is necessary to regard the resolution of the prominent issues causing strong resentment of the masses... and the masses' satisfaction with the resolution, as an important yardstick for measuring the success of the education drive," said the People's Daily (5 January 2005).

At stake is nothing less than "the Party's ability to govern, its prestige amongst the masses".

Human rights

According to the US state department's annual report on human rights, China holds 250,000 without trial in "re-education through labour" camps.

Mayor Dai Xianglong
The central government is making efforts to improve the legal and democratic system
Mayor Dai Xianglong
The official figure for executions is a state secret: a member of the National People's Congress claimed last year that "nearly 10,000" cases a year "result in immediate execution".

Torture and ill-treatment in detention is widespread, according to Amnesty International. In the courts there is a 97.7% conviction rate.

This has led to international pressure on human rights - pressure Mayor Dai dismisses:

"I don't really know where the concern comes from. And I don't know in what particular area this country, China, has done harm to human rights.

"It's clearly written into the constitution - respect for the right to employment, education, press freedom and association. I don't think investors are concerned about human rights abuse - their main concern is whether China can maintain smooth economic growth."

He points to the increased role of China's official "advisory parties" and the pressure group system that operates in the People's Consultative Congress as proof that multiparty democracy is not necessary.

"At an individual level, as people become more educated, they're more willing to participate in politics. That's not something that's bad - it's good. So the central government is making efforts to improve the legal and democratic system... I have seven deputy mayors and one of them is a lady who is not a CP member."

Social inclusion

Breathing life into the existing mechanisms of Communist rule - so that organisations that once simply wielded the rubber stamp now act as checks and balances - is one part of the new leadership's strategy. The other is a new emphasis on measures to promote social inclusion.

I know that weak groups in society need protection
Mayor Dai Xianglong
"Personally, I'm from a rural area and I know that weak groups in society need protection," says Mayor Dai.

The deal the Communist Party offers to the people is simple: we create new jobs, build brand new cities and protect you from the full impact of globalisation; in return you forget about multiparty democracy, free speech and unauthorised religions.

History says it can't last forever: but it's already lasted longer than anyone predicted.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight was 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the link on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

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07 Mar 05 |  Newsnight
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09 Mar 05 |  Newsnight


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