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Sunday, January 01, 2006

How Fragile is China?

More on China's development troubles:

In rural China, a time bomb is ticking, by Joshua Muldavin, International Herald Tribune: The recent police killing in China's Guangdong Province of as many as 20 villagers who were protesting the government's seizure of land for a power plant is symptomatic of an emerging pattern of rural unrest that challenges the very legitimacy of the Chinese state... China's fabulous growth since the 1980s was achieved through environmental destruction and social and economic polarization which now threaten its continuation. ... While rural strife is not new - in 1994, I witnessed thousands of peasants in Henan Province fight a local government militia over unpopular taxation and state policies - its scope and frequency have increased greatly. ... In 2004, according to official estimates, there were 74,000 uprisings throughout the country ...

Peasant land loss is a time bomb for the state. While avoiding full land privatization and, until recently, massive landlessness of the rural majority, Beijing still allows unregulated rural land development for new industries and infrastructure. Land seized from peasants reduces their minimal subsistence base, leaving them with what is called "two-mouth" lands insufficient to feed most families, thus forcing members of many households to join China's 200 million migrants in search of work across the country. In many areas..., some households have lost even these small subsistence lands, swelling the ranks of China's landless peasants, who number a staggering 70 million according to official estimates. ...

The Chinese state is very clear on the rural roots of the 1949 revolution, ones emanating from massive inequality and social insecurity. But there is a new clarity now for peasants and rural workers, who have seen the state increasingly side with the newly rich over the past two decades... This harks back to the period prior to China's 1949 revolution when enormous numbers of landless peasants formed the core of the largely rural movement led by Mao and others. Following their victory, it was the redistribution of land to the poorest peasants that gave the Communist Party its greatest enduring legitimacy in rural areas. It is the loss of this legitimacy that lies at the heart of the most recent strife.

Beijing could use the violence in Guangdong as an opportunity to address the structural roots of the larger unrest... Instead the state is opting to characterize the killings as the mistake of an overly zealous local police officer rather than a systematic attempt to contain rural discontent by any means. The dilemma for China is not a public relations one... Unless overall policies are altered to address the needs of China's vulnerable rural majority, Beijing will surely face more protracted and violent challenges from the victims of the country's development "success."

This reminds me of the enclosure movement in England:

Enclosure (also historically inclosure) is the process of subdivision of common land for individual ownership. There were two main processes of enclosure in England. One was the division of the large open fields which had been common in some areas of the country into individually managed plots of land, usually hedged and known at the time as "severals". All of the strips of land in these open fields had been privately owned, but communually ploughed ... and open to communal grazing after the harvest or in fallow years. ...[M]edieval manors usually had two to three large open fields, so that crops could be rotated. In the process of enclosure, these were consolidated and divided into severals, to be individually managed. ...

The second process of enclosure was the division and privatisation of common fens and marshes, moors and other "wastes" (in the original sense of "uninhabited places"). These enclosures created new private plots... The second form of enclosure affected particularly those areas, such as the North, the far south west and unique regions such as the East Anglian Fens, where grazing had been plentiful on otherwise marginal lands, such as marshes and moors. Access to these common resources was an essential part of the economic life in these strongly pastoral regions. In the Fens, large riots broke out both in the seventeenth century, when attempts to drain the peat and silt marshes were combined with proposals to also partially enclose them.

From as early as the 12th century, some open fields in Britain were being enclosed into individually owned fields. In Great Britain, the process sped up during the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church and the government, particularly depopulating enclosure, and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the tide of elite opinion began to turn towards support for enclosure, and rate of enclosure increased in the seventeenth century. ... Sir Thomas More, in his 1516 work Utopia suggests that the practice of enclosure is responsible for some of the social problems affecting England at the time ... By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete.

Many believe the enclosure movement was an essential factor in England's industrialization and the emergence of capitalism as it helped to create a class of citizens with nothing but their labor to sell in order to survive, though there were many other factors such as the decline of guilds that were important as well.

As adults often forget their own foibles in childhood as they discipline their children, I think we often forget that we went through difficult growing pains much like those that China is experiencing. For example, we too were willing to trade environmental degradation for growth in our younger development years, and England and other European countries made the same choice as capitalism was emerging, perhaps to a much larger extent than China has. Awful working conditions, worker riots, and so on are in our past as well and we should be careful about insisting that other countries do better than we were able to do when confronted with similar economic development issues. I am not defending or excusing any of these practices, not at all, and we should continue to pressure China to do better, but remembering and acknowledging our own past as we do so could help us deliver the message in a way that is more likely to get a positive reception.

    Posted by on Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:09 PM in China, Economics, History of Thought | Permalink  TrackBack (3)  Comments (15)


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