Article: Rumblings From China


From the July 2nd NYT

Rumblings From China

In the 17 years since the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement, China has enjoyed an economic miracle and remarkable political stability. But my hunch is that that period of smooth sailing is now coming to an end.

Wildcat protests, some violent and involving thousands of people, have been exploding around the country. By the Chinese government’s own count, there are now more than 200 protests a day, prompted by everything from layoffs to government seizures of land.

The protests may grow if, as seems likely, China’s economic model appears less miraculous in the years ahead.

Labor costs are rising, and increased attention to the environment will also raise production costs. The rapid aging of China’s population (a huge problem in coming decades) will reduce the labor force’s share of the population. It’s also hard to sustain 10 percent annual growth rates as the base becomes steadily larger.

All this is likely to mean somewhat lower growth ahead. Some low-wage manufacturing jobs may move to cheaper countries like Vietnam, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Job shortages already anger newly minted university graduates. So even a modest slowing of China’s growth rate would mean more economic frustration for people to protest about.

The upshot is that I sense more fragility in the system than at almost any time in the 23 years that I’ve been visiting or living in China. Party officials say they feel it, too, and I think that’s why the leadership is so reluctant to devalue the yuan: it doesn’t want to risk factory closures, job losses and unrest.

These protests are becoming a part of daily life. When I was outside the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing, as my Times colleague Zhao Yan was being tried inside on trumped-up charges of leaking state secrets, a cluster of peasants appeared with red banners denouncing the seizure of their land. They pushed a wheelchair-bound 80-year-old, who was savvy enough to cry whenever a camera came near.

“We’re just ordinary people with no power and no money,” shouted the demonstration’s leader, Jin Xinhua. “There’s nothing we can do but protest.”

It’s possible to see the rise of protests simply as the evolution of China into a more open society. Some in the Communist Party leadership have argued for following the Taiwanese model toward greater democracy, and one attraction for Beijing is that the Communists might well win free elections if they held them.

But evolution doesn’t seem to be President Hu Jintao’s vision of the future; he’s a man who has praised North Korea’s political model.

The basic problem for Mr. Hu is that the incentives have changed over the last half-dozen years, encouraging more challenges to the system. As one dissident told me, in the past getting in trouble would mean a 10-year term in prison, alone and forgotten. “Now, if I go to prison,” he said, “I’ll get out after a year, and I’ll be a hero.”

True, some people are sent to prison longer (like my colleague, Mr. Zhao), but few people seem much intimidated.

“I’m not worried,” laughed Jiao Guobiao, a professor who was fired from Beijing University for writing scathing essays about the Communist Party — which he continues to write. “If they want to arrest me, let ’em.”

The upshot is a growing boldness spreading throughout the land. On this trip, a half-dozen people regaled me with stories about State Security (China’s K.G.B.) giving them confidential warnings to toe the line — which they scoffed at.

This boldness is significant because over the last half-century, the times when Chinese rose up to demand broad political change (1956, 1976, 1986, 1989) have not been the times they were most upset, but the times they were least scared. And now again, they’re not very scared.

So the country today reminds me of early 1989, before the Tiananmen protests, or of South Korea and Taiwan in the mid-1980’s as citizens began defying the dictatorships in those places. All around China, from Thailand to Indonesia to Mongolia, rising incomes and education levels eventually led to major protests demanding more accountable government.

I’m a believer in China, and I think it will end this century as the most important country in the world — after a wild ride. For now, my premonition is that the ferment in China will grow, and that the long calm since Tiananmen may be coming to an end.



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