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Spread the wealth

October 19, 2005

A GLARING SYMBOL FOR THE distance China has traveled from the Mao Tse-tung days is the Ferrari showroom not far from Tiananmen Square. Nor is capitalism neglected in the lobbies of Beijing's five-star hotels, where Hermes, Ferragamo and Tiffany kiosks reign. No wonder some Chinese joke that the label "communist" in the ruling party's name is a relic.

But China's rulers demonstrated again last week that they understand the rising tide has not yet lifted all boats. The nation's wealth, staggering though it is, is concentrated along the coast. It's easy to see the rich in Shanghai and Guangzhou, but they're far more scarce in the west.

Chinese President Hu Jintao deserves credit for understanding the problems. His slogan of "harmonious society" reflects the need to lessen the disparity between rich and poor, which is exacerbated by high-handed local officials and private developers who demolish simple houses to make way for high-rises with little or no compensation for the tenants. The corruption that allows such things to happen makes the problem worse.

The party's leaders ended their annual planning meeting last week with a pledge to try to "maintain fast and stable economic growth" while also improving the lives of those they rule. The demand for change is clear: According to government figures, there were 10,000 public protests in 1994 and 74,000 last year. That shows the anger over corruption, income inequality and poor and dangerous working conditions. Hu and his team have tried to address the problems, going out of their way to visit coal mines (still the sites of cave-ins that kill dozens of miners at a time) and helping migrants from the countryside to the cities collect their wages.

But Hu has not matched political progress to the country's economic strides, as pointed out by World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz during a visit to Beijing. In a news conference Tuesday, Wolfowitz said China had made some advances in listening to ordinary citizens but needed to do more in developing the rule of law and a civil society. Wolfowitz said the World Bank's wide experience in providing funds to developing nations -- and China still is one despite its pockets of wealth -- had taught it that the quality of governance determines the quality of development.

That argues for a more democratic society that benefits all Chinese, not just the rich. After more than two years as president, Hu has consolidated power and moved adroitly through potential disasters such as the SARS outbreak. Now he should give villagers more voice in government and not expect them to be content merely with being lifted from poverty, important though that is.

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