Will China fall under popular revolt?

May 20th, 2009

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There is no doubt that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has hit China very hard. As reported in China’s Way Forward,

Idle factories, moored container ships, widespread bankruptcies, massive migration back to the hinterlands, strangely clean air?the signs of depression are everywhere in China. Because it makes so many of the goods the world isn?t buying now, China stands to be worse hit than the rest of the world ?just as America was during the Depression, when it was the world?s sweatshop.

There is a school of thought that believes that if the Chinese government is not able to maintain economic growth, then the government will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the people and there will be political upheaval as a result. The extreme views in this school of thought even envisage the break-up of China by comparing it with the Soviet Union. As that article says,

Its unspoken premise is that average Chinese people just barely tolerate the social bargain the government now offers?limited freedom, potentially unlimited wealth. So if the regime ever falls short on its material promises, the deal will be off and people will rebel.

But as this article noted, this school of thought do not understand the cultural and political reality of modern China. In the 20th century, China suffered civil wars, foreign invasions, tyranny, human-induced starvation (Mao’s Great Leap Forward). It was only more than 30 years ago that the brutal Cultural Revolution ended. To put it simply, the tremendous sufferings of the Chinese people are still recent memories. As one Chinese businessman said during a documentary TV interview, the prosperity of today’s China seems like a dream to him as it was only recently that he was living in relative poverty.

No doubt, the wealth gap in China has much to be reduced and there are many endemic issues yet to be solved (e.g. inequality, corruption, uneven economic growth, environment, pollution, lack of political freedom, etc). But relative to what the Chinese people had to endure during their recent past, their lives have improved tremendously. As that article said,

People doing routine jobs have been through great hardships and dramatic swings of fate. Last year I interviewed a party official in Shanxi province who was laying out his regional-development plans. Every 10 or 15 minutes, he would stop and say (through an interpreter), ?Do you understand? If it had not been for Deng Xiaoping, I would be behind an ox in a field right now. I would not be sitting here wearing a necktie and talking to a foreigner.? Or, ?Do you understand how different this is? My mother has bound feet!? A scholar I know in Beijing once offhandedly remarked that he had developed self-confidence when learning that he could survive for four years as a teenager on a labor gang during the Cultural Revolution. People in their teens and 20s were not on the labor gangs?kids today!?but they have heard the stories.

From this perspective, the ‘economic depression’ caused by the GFC is hardly worth a mention compared to the sufferings even 30 years ago. Despite the discontent and protests of many Chinese, the object of their fury is usually not against the ‘system.’ As that article said,

But when people complain, it is usually about those crooked bosses, reporters, mayors, or bureaucrats?not about the system or its rulers. Principled protests against the system and its repression certainly do exist, as with the daring ?Charter 08? petition for civil liberties signed by more than 300 intellectuals late last year. But that is not the norm.

Perhaps these workers are missing the big picture, but for now they generally act as if they expect the national system to protect them against lapses at the local level.

Thus, if the Chinese economy still has much room to deteriorate, we doubt there will be any mass revolts that will fracture China.

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