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Friday, July 14, 2006

Politics, Economic Reform, and Social Unrest in China

Why has the leadership in China been willing to provide statistics on the number of protests when the statistics point to growing social unrest? Here's one answer:

China: Hu's power play, by Ian Bremmer, International Herald Tribune: Last August, China's security minister ... announced that 3.7 million citizens had participated in some 74,000 public protests in 2004. Chinese officials say the number of demonstrations rose to 87,000 in 2005. What do these statistics tell us?

Considering the source, many analysts conclude that China has a substantial and growing problem with social unrest, and that the Communist party takes that problem very seriously. But why would Chinese officials invent a number that suggests the country is plagued with so much popular anger? The answer reveals the more immediate challenges facing President Hu Jintao's political and economic agenda.

Over the past year, a battle has begun within the Chinese leadership, pitting Hu and his allies against a growing range of critics. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, aggressively promoted the view that China's government must feed rapid economic development ... Jiang's supporters, many of them based in Shanghai, have profited mightily from this strategy. But Hu warns that the social costs have now become unacceptably high.

Gaps are widening between rich and poor, and between residents of the eastern boomtowns and the slower-to-develop interior provinces. Rapid industrial development has resulted in enormous levels of environmental damage. The ... ambitious restructuring of the economy has put millions of Chinese out of work and forced millions more to abandon rural villages for the cities.

Hu has built his base of domestic support on promises to solve these problems. To ensure that China's future growth is "balanced" and "harmonious," he has ordered that some of China's newfound wealth be redirected toward the provinces that Jiang's policies overlooked.

Jiang himself has largely retreated from the political stage, but many of his loyalists remain within the government. Some have criticized (even obstructed) Hu's reforms. To consolidate his authority, Hu believes he must win the reform argument and purge the party of ... his predecessor's allies.

That's where the statistics come in. Jiang's government didn't publicize data on social unrest. When Hu assumed the presidency, protest statistics began to appear. To force policy changes through China's labyrinthine bureaucracy, senior officials are often forced to generate a crisis atmosphere that lends urgency to the implementation of their plans.

Data suggesting that unrest is growing ... bolsters Hu's case for reforms. If successfully implemented, these reforms might consolidate the strength of Hu's political position, inspire loyalty from excluded segments of the population, and dismantle the growth-at-all-costs model. ...

But the president's inability to end the year-long debate suggests that he's increasingly vulnerable. After four years in power, Hu still has not managed to monopolize control of core positions in the party hierarchy. ... Up to this point, Hu has moved cautiously. But if he is to assume full control before the 2007 party congress, he must move against some still-powerful senior officials. ...

Though the numbers that document domestic unrest may not be reliable, the problem of domestic unrest is real - and Chinese officials know it. Last August, the central government assigned special police units to 36 Chinese cities. In December, police fired on angry farmers and fishermen in the southern village of Dongzhou, killing as many as 20. The incident was probably the worst example of such bloodshed since the assault on Tiananmen Square. Reports of demonstrations appear each week.

Social unrest clearly threatens China's long-term stability. But it's the unrest within the leadership that now has Hu Jintao's attention.

    Posted by on Friday, July 14, 2006 at 08:46 PM in China, Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (1)


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