FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

China–Broken Rice Bowls, Stifled Voices

by

Amidst the economic downturn in China, two developments that are not “in the human interest” stand out: rising unemployment among workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and repression of criticism of the party-state leadership.  China, no different from any other large country, has a multitude of domestic problems, but those two are especially worrisome in that they have the potential for significant unrest.  And for the Chinese leadership, social instability always raises red flags.

China’s breakneck economic expansion has finally slowed, as it surely had to after so many years of double-digit growth.  During that span, the leadership has largely delivered on increasing income, alleviating poverty, opening overseas markets, allowing people to get rich, and widening the circle of private enterprise.  But at the same time, these dramatic changes in post-Mao economy have also produced large-scale official corruption at every level of government, widening household income gaps, worsening of air and water quality, a huge influx of rural people into cities, and reduced employment opportunity for educated young people.

In the economic reform era, SOEs have been a weak link—often too big to fail, but also too expensive to keep subsidizing.  Now that official thinking has turned to a version of supply-side economics, steel and coal SOEs are a prime target. Overproduction is being met by substantial layoffs—estimates run anywhere from 2 to 3 million workers—and reduced or withheld wages.  Other inefficient, debt-burdened SOEs may face new restrictions on their activities, though closing them down is as much a political as an economic issue.  Strikes and labor protests are already accelerating; in 2015 they reportedly doubled (to around 2,700) compared with 2014, leading the government to actions designed to disrupt labor organizing.

Simultaneously, Xi Jinping has also further concentrated power in his hands and spread his words and image far and wide—so much so that some people believe he is styling himself after Chairman Mao, whose cult of personality dominated Chinese politics for more than a quarter century.   Elevating the great leader has been accompanied by a crackdown on lawyers and journalists, jailing or house arrest of prominent online critics, censorship of newspaper articles deemed offensive to the party leaders, and warnings about embracing Western ideas.  Xi recently paid a personal visit to the three major state-run news outlets to insure conformity with the party line.  As the China Times intoned, “it is necessary for the media to restore public trust in the party.”

The two trends are closely connected in that the legitimacy and longevity of the party-state depend above all on maintaining social stability—wei wen.  As Deng Xiaoping said, “stability overrides everything.”

“The stability maintenance regime is China’s hybrid approach to suppress undesirable elements in the social order,” Dali Yang has written.  But wei wen can be risky when the economy is being deregulated, as the strikes and protests show.  Cracking down on critics of the regime on charges such as “provoking trouble” and “illegal content” makes a mockery of the official commitment to the “rule of law” and raises fears of a return to the era of “democratic dictatorship.”  And if high-profile people with well-connected backers are among the victims of a crackdown, party leaders could find themselves in a serious predicament.

“Where there is oppression, there is resistance,” Mao once said. And so there has been, though not of the sort that threatens regime stability.  A prominent financial newspaper, Caixin, publicized the fact that one of its articles had been censored.  When a real estate tycoon with millions of followers of his blog came under party assault for his sharp criticism of the party’s authoritarianism, and had his blog account expunged, a number of prominent journalists and scholars jumped to his aid. An employee of Xinhua, the official news agency, wrote a letter protesting that “the public’s freedom of expression has been violated to an extreme degree.”  The letter got plenty of attention online before the authorities, of course, took it down.

Xi Jinping’s evident effort to build his reputation as a no-nonsense leader may win applause in foreign affairs—such as the tough line he has taken on the South China Sea dispute—but at home it seems destined to meet with a rising backlash.  Chinese politics isn’t freewheeling like Taiwan’s, but neither is it the tightly controlled society of Chairman Mao. Workers and professionals alike have more room than ever before to express their discontent.  While “forbidden zones” remain and party apparatchiks function as usual, China is now a wired society, and everything from ordinary complaints to mass protests can go ballistic in an instant.  China is a long way from falling apart; but enforcing “stability” is likely to prove increasingly difficult.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Phillip Kim et al.
Open Letter to Bernie Sanders from Former Campaign Staffers
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Convention Con
Lewis Evans
Executing Children Won’t Save the Tiger or the Rhino
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
Chris Odinet
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
David Rovics
The Republicans and Democrats Have Now Switched Places
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Rev. William Alberts
“Law and Order:” Code words for White Lives Matter Most
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
The Artistic Representation of War and Peace, Politics and the Global Crisis
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Elliot Sperber
Pseudo-Democracy, Reparations, and Actual Democracy
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Kathleen Wallace
Feel the About Turn
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
Charles R. Larson
Review: B. George’s “The Death of Rex Ndongo”
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail