This one is a long analytic write-up, so I decided to post in parts, but after feedback, I am posting the whole stuff as one write-up as well.
INFORMATION ANARCHY IS GOOD - DEMOCRATIC VIBES IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
The Middle Kingdom has been forbidden for most of the analysts (poor and heavily filtered information) but that is not a concrete proposition anymore.
So, this time, when dear Mr. Wen Jiabao, again, advocates for political reforms and opening-up of a closed society, it reflects a realistic assessment and not some surface-deep appeasement rhetoric.
In last few months, this coastal Guangdong village has become a roll model for many suppressed voices in this iron-curtained country. And now that they have been allowed to hold their own election, we can say the unilateral democratic measures (better say a pseudo-democracy, if at all it sees the light of the day) being advocated for by the likes of Wen Jiabao would not be booed down by the Politburo elite as has been the case in past.
Yes, very emphatically, we can say it is not going to bring any miraculous change, a surge of expression of unquenched desire to see the change rising, spreading with this example, acquiring a pan-China canvas.
But indeed, the common Chinese with his benchmark protest address, the non-descript street around the corner, armed now with the social media tools would be seen as the potent symbol of change. (We, out of China, already have started smelling it.)
And equally emphatically, we can say, it has been heard across even in one of the most tightly controlled regimes, in China, where this non-descript village Wukan rose to protest the land-grab policy of the administration and got a stay on further acquisition of the village land. Here we need to take note that the party secretary Wang Yang, who heads the provincial government of Guangdong, played an important role.
It becomes even more important when we place it in the context of the scheduled regime change of the Communist Party this year. Mr. Wang Yang is a potential contender to join the elite nine-member body of the Community Party, the Politburo Standing Committee.
So when dear Wen sounds pro-democratic again using words like farmers’ voting rights, self-governance and direct election in villages, it provides a fascinating platform for the study of the sociological churnings in the world’s most populous nation.
One of the core reasons behind this seemingly sea-change in the thinking of some of the Chinese power elite is the realization that the phenomenal growth of the Internet (adjunct to the improved earnings), mobile communication and social media platforms has armed the ordinary Chinese with tools to share ideas that is very hard to control.
Though, every communication platform including the social media is heavily regulated in China, the extent of users spread squeezes out the mileage from an effective control on the communication flow that intends to kill the waves at the source.
Had it not been the case, the world would have never known about Wukan for the reasons it is known today. We still have varying versions of what happened at the Tiananmen Square in 1989. But we know many things about Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei and many other Chinese activists in clear terms.
Information empowers. Anarchy is good as there has been no order. Chaos is the perfect breeding ground to dimension the order.
But anarchy, in the geopolitical context, becomes a very subjective term.
What is the subjective pretext (if any) in the prevailing Chinese context here?
THE SUBJECTIVE PRETEXT (IF ANY) IN THE PREVAILING CHINESE CONTEXT
China has a huge middle class. 40 per cent of this middle class is urban. Recently China’s urban population surpassed its rural population.
Twitter is banned. Facebook is not there. But Weibo, China’s very own Twitter has seen explosive growth. Over 500 million Chinese are accessing Internet now. Over 250 million users are present on Weibo. A report says about 90 per cent of the urban Internet users are microbloggers under the age of 30.
These two subsets of statements are going to have big, big implications for China in the days to come. Potent enough to push the country in a protracted civil war between the ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’, still most of the Chinese power elite barring few are not realizing it or probably are not in a position to realize it publicly.
The Chinese power elite have been in a comfort zone riding high on the apolitical priorities and complacent traits of this middle class, a significantly large population base.
The democratic thought that has been the way the Chinese power elite need:
1978, when China opened up its economy, its rural and urban per-capita income was $19.6 and $50.3 that shot to $606.2 and $2018.4, respectively, in 2007. According to latest figures available, the Chinese per capita GDP crossed the $5,000 level threshold last year. These figures compiled in a government report speak of a 23 per cent year-on-year growth.
Amazing, the common expression about this China story! What has made it possible?
Abundance of migrants - the cheap labour - the 160 million migrant workforce - compelled to work day-in and day-out to kill the memories of China's factory culture social construct.
A large middle class, always on the lookout to earn that extra security and cushion that was like a distant dream in its previous generation.
And a spoon-fed nationalist sentiment of China Pride.
China’s per capita income was 2.52% of that of US in 1980 that improved to the level of 4.05% of US per capita income in 2005. Current per capita income of US is around $48,000, around 10 times to the per capita income of China. So the gap is huge.
Chinese rulers have been feeding its middle class base with a dream of life of luxury in the days ahead when China will be world’s largest economy. It is already the second largest when it overtook Japan when China’s GDP totaled $1.337 trillion ($1.288 trillion-Japan), 90 times bigger than what China had in 1978.
Though impressive growth, the perception about its prowess and mighty status, militarily as well as economically, that the world’s most populous country has been very deliberately developing since 1978, has an inherent risk.
The dream to chase and bridge this gap has been the prevailing nationalist sentiment among the burgeoning Chinese middle class. Their income is growing and no doubt, China has tried to distribute the gains to its rural areas, too, but there has not been much headway. Its corrupt system is failing it. Urban-rural chasm is getting viral.
Characteristically, for the urban population, that directly reaps the benefits of models as being practiced by China, once people are fed-up of what they have achieved, they look for the next level. And the problem is, the swift pace of change in recent times ($2018.4 per capita income to $5,000 in just four years) has made the middle class sentiment change even swifter. Though controlled, they know the world outside China in much better terms now and are more prone to get agitated once they find the road to the economic empowerment is getting narrower.
As already happening, China of the future will have a middle class thriving on technological sophistication, connected more to the world and to the Diaspora, and demanding for more and more.
The economy growth is bound to slow down and even stagnate in coming years.
When such a huge and aspiring middle class doesn’t get its ends met, it starts questioning the state policies. And that phase of class-clash in the ‘classless’ Chinese society has already begun.
It has to have implications. Even by the most liberal estimates, China might fail in the coming future if political reforms are not introduced.
How this ‘layered-society’ China may alter the course of the history that the Chinese Communist Party is going to have?
Economic conditions and social media are making protests more common in China – a delicate time for the country’s rulers – The Economist, January 28, 2012
PROTESTERS ARE CONNECTING
This flow of information is seditious in the eyes of the conservative power elite and they are far more in number (almost absolute) to literally throw any reform process thought to the bin. They advocate tougher and harsher action to rein-in this ‘anarchy’. Don’t we regularly come across reports of China cracking down on freedom of expression?
But for a burgeoning middle class; but for a rapidly urbanizing population; but for a ‘millions of younger lot’ with ‘US-like-life’ dream to sleep with; but for multimillions of impoverished migrants who help build the skyscrapers dotting the China’s skyline and who know they would never be allowed to be part of that city life; and but for the multimillions of the next generation of this legacy – this information flow is the only empowerment option available and they are likely to go to the extra mile to cling to it.
What is anarchy for the power elite is turning out to be the empowerment hope for over a billion of population (it is unorthodox estimate that includes the population segment with forced compliance, placing the anti-view in majority here but not expressing and so looks in minority, due to a basket of factors – much like a classic case of spiral of silence).
It is bound to grow as the economic gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Subsequently the discontent is rising. Also, China of the day has fatally vital stakes in the global economy. Europe is China’s biggest market. And Eurozone is facing an unprecedented economic crisis. Remember violent ‘Occupy’ protest. Another big market is the US, certainly not in the green of the economic parameters performance.
Last two years have seen spate of strikes in the foreground of the Middle Kingdom and the reasons vary from demands of better working conditions to salary hikes and reinstatements.
It’s not just about sexy and sleek Foxconn, one of Apple’s major suppliers, that has been much in bad news due to strikes and mass suicide threats of workers demanding better working conditions. (Now that is nowhere near to the beauty of an iPad!) Such strikes have been the common thread all across the Pearl River Delta, China’s manufacturing powerhouse. Poor treatment is already making noise and forcing sensitive politicking of the public domain on this issue in the developed countries. Warnings are being issued. Apple CEO Tim Cook has issued a tough warning to Foxconn. His email reads, “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made. Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple.”
Expect similar gesture from other big companies if the human abuse in the big factory called China continues. Expect more of such warnings if the volume of the news about strikes keeps on improving its lot.
Social media is helping the news flow circumventing the regulatory tentacles. In case of Wukan, key words on name and place of the village were tried to be blocked. But Wukan happened. And so the voluminous (yes voluminous given the past history of the information flow in China) flow of information is happening.
A report in The Economist presents an interesting observation. It says, “Weibo have transformed public discourse in China. News that three or four years ago would have been relatively easy for local officials to suppress, downplay or ignore is now instantly transmitted across the nation. Local protests or scandals to which few would once have paid attention are now avidly discussed by Weibo users. The government tries hard, but largely ineffectively, to control this debate by blocking key words and cancelling the accounts of muckraking users. Circumventions are easily found. Since December the government has been rolling out a new rule that people must use their real names to open accounts. So far, users seem undeterred.”
Increasing number of strikes – increasing realization of the widening income gap – increasing flow of information – midst the year of the decadal transition in China’s political leadership!
The backdrop of the foreground called the ‘economic miracle of China’ looks debilitating.
THE DECADAL POLITICAL TRANSITION AND THE ELITIST HUE
Later this year, China is going to see the major organizational change with face changes in the 300-member Central Committee, 25-member Politburo and 9-member Politburo Standing Committee. The prevailing economic and political circumstances are unlike the last time when Hu Jintao took the rein.
Growth was good. It was minus the talks of the growth rate stagnation. Cheap labour didn’t see it as coming cheap to the factory factor. Beijing Olympics 2008 had not happened. The world and the Chinese people had not seen the blind rush to look developed even if it meant forcibly throwing the lower strata of the society and the migrant population out of the monstrous Megapolis cities of the ‘new-age China’.
And moreover, there was no social media threat. What seemed unlikely in China of 2002 looks increasingly likely in China of 2012?
Growth rate is coming down and its stagnation is well realized now. All this while, China has been urbanizing rapidly creating marvels of the structural engineering leaving at bay the human engineering exercise. Now as orders are decreasing and pangs of another global economic crisis after the 2008 bloodbath on the bourses looming larger, this urbanization is looking more like a bane.
What would millions of the migrant workers do if the employment generation stagnates?
Prices are rising disproportionate to the income level rise of the millions of workers of the factory China, be it the migrants or the middle class. Pressure on survival and that scarce independent social security in China is rising. Millions of the dreams are dying; the dreams that, somehow, had dreamt of Maslow’s realization.
Slowing economic growth also means China would need to bring down its public spending on those big-ticket infrastructure projects. The country is already under pressure after reckless spending in the name of the economic stimulus. Cities need to send migrant workers back to their villages to ward-off the increasing pressure of public expenditure in the cities.
Most of these migrant workers are second generation semi-skilled hands with no exposure to agriculture. And like any other developing country, rural China, too, doesn’t have anything but agriculture to support the concerned population base.
This subset of the Chinese population has all the rights to get angry on its precarious situation. And remember, they access the Internet, text to the community and have a presence on the social media. A catch 22 situation indeed!
Social media, even if regulated, is giving Chinese administrators nightmares. Information is flowing. Wukan happened and we know it or to say it more aptly – Wukan happened because we, out of China, know it. Thousands of workers of a Taiwanese shoe factory in Dongguan went on strike against salary cut and sacking in November 2011. Factory workers clashed with the police. Photographs of bloodied workers circulated over the Internet reaching to us, out of China. This incident further incited strikes and protests at other outfits. We still know of the 3-day strike by Chengdu steelworkers though the state controlled Chinese media kept quiet about it. There are many more similar case studies to bolster the claim here.
I had been to an international seminar last year, organized at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. The theme was ‘Information and Communication Technology and Development’. A fine Chinese thinker’s paper was on how growing base of information and communication technologies is creating layers (classes) in the Chinese society. It was really an eye-opening analysis. Though his analysis hinges more around widening gap of ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’ based on the pattern of information consumption, it also tells how the flow of information is becoming significant in the Chinese society with an ever increasing number of people logging-in and connecting on the networks.
Then there are other head-on factors. Do some simple googling on ‘China’s power transition’ and you would come across plenty of analyses seeing the crisis days ahead.
THE PROBLEM OF PLENTY
China has probably the maximum number of factories and the largest workforce. The dragon has extracted the maximum possible mileage out of it. Consistently high growth rate over the last two decades tell it. Global economic scenario and a common economic intelligence tell the growth high is already at its saturation level. The only road further is to go down to have the saner and not miraculous growth figures. That would mean less manpower requirement for lowered production targets.
But what would happen to this plenty then? Factories can be closed but what about those dependent on these factories for their livelihoods? And this has started happening. Result – spate of strikes and protests in the last three years.
A Reuters report puts the number of mass incidents consistently above 90,000 per year from 2007 to 2009 quoting a former deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily. 2010 and 2011 are no different stories. We didn’t hear much about 2007-2009 but have good knowhow about 2010-2011 developments.
What is disturbing for the Chinese power elite is the way strikes happened in 2011. The Economist report says, “A report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) says that, compared with those in 2010, the strikes of 2011 were better organised, more confrontational and more likely to trigger copycat action.”
CAN A SECOND GENERATION HANDLE ANOTHER SECOND GENERATION?
Especially when they are the two extremes - one, from the rugged, deprived countryside - other, from the most privileged section of the Chinese society - with the later feeding directly on the former in the prevailing political scenario in China! (Its only the matter of growing realization and 'how and when' of it)
The year of the dragon looks ominous for the Middle Kingdom. Much depends on how the Chinese policymakers are going to handle the crisis at hand that may aggravate to the acidic level by the time the power transition happens. The political thought make-up that China is going to have for the next decade will have its testing times right in the face in the very beginning.
And in this China, strange things are happening; strange as the power elite see it. Certainly it is not strange for us, out of China. Rather, it is a natural consequence of what is happening in the China of the day.
‘Children of the revolution’ is a nice-to-ear term but given the intense amount of news flow and analysis on the next generation of Chinese political leaders, it looks as implicating as the cantilevered term ‘the princelings'. A simple search with the thread ‘China princelings’ would fetch thousands of analytic views and news reports and almost of them sound cautious in nature.
Politics in the Communist China is gradually becoming more and more dynastic in nature, the absolute contrary to the socialist politics ethos. Degeneration of the Communist politics looks to get its extreme level with China joining the bandwagon of the ‘dead-men-walkings’ of the Communist politics like Cuba or North Korea.
Princelings are increasingly having grown up stature in the politics of the Communist Party of China. The Politburo had nine such princelings during 2000-2007. The most elite body, the Politburo Standing Committee, might have five prinelings on-board out of the total strength of nine after the next power transition. A section of the ‘eight immortals’ that was purged by Mao in the Cultural Revolution has its second generation fully reinstated to run the lives of ordinary Chinese. There are factions of the second generation leadership, from political and military backgrounds, vying for the ‘seats’ of power in the next ‘huddle of change’; ‘huddle’ as politicking in China at top level has become a tedious job of balancing different and differing influencing voices. It is yet another concern area that might add negatively to the efforts to control the rising unrest in the country in the year of power transition.
Yes, how the ‘elite few’ of the second generation of the political leadership handle the frustrated multimillions of the second generation of the factory worker Chinese would write how prosperous and developed China would be in the 21st Century.
The prevailing circumstances are disturbing. There are sections of the ‘children of revolution’ armed with liberal education from abroad and there are sections represented by the likes of Bo Xilai, advocating painting China in Maoist Red, taking it back to the days of the Cultural Revolution. The common base they touch is that they are offspring of a political legacy preserved with utmost ruthlessness.
What is different in China from the other Communist ‘dead-men-walkings’ is the economic model that imitates Capitalism now. And it has elevated hopes of the millions. What was once utterly alien had started looking well within reach. The second generation of the migrant Chinese workers and the burgeoning middle class base are its representatives.
Suppressing them declining political reforms would make them alien to the concept of the Communist Politics of the China of the day. When the political and the military class can have secure lives for their next generations, why can’t an ordinary Chinese aspire for it?
An ordinary Chinese has started understanding it. He doesn’t need the sky but a secure income at the end of the day and even that is not happening with the millions.
The 'economic powerhouse' China can handle the economic crisis but how would it handle the precursor of unrest and a deepening desire of having freedom to express the dissent?
A mass crackdown would only worsen the crisis. China, simply, cannot be a Cuba or a North Korea, given its stakes in the global economics and given its changed demographic landscape.
The Middle Kingdom is not at all in a position to remain forbidden anymore. The world is watching. And most of the Chinese now know it. Social media is happening even as the dragon is furious about it.
RISING ANGER – REALIZING OR AVERTING
How these strikes are being handled is one of the most fascinatingly ignored aspects of China’s demographic turmoil. The usual practice is arm twisting but the subjects are the factory management people here, be it the private firms or the state run institutions. In most of the cases, strikers are bought off by the management after pressure from the area officials of the party. Even then there has been significant number of strikes resulting in clashes. It tells two things:
Either China is compelled to look pro-proletariat in an economy rapidly becoming Capitalistic in its dimensions.
Or China fears the large scale backlash that is brewing among the millions of the factory workers and middle class population. Not able to find any solution, they are going for the momentary relief by co-opting the striking groups.
Any which way, the situation looks sinister. If a socialist country comes under the compulsion of looking pro-proletariat or has to honey-trap striking factory workers, it is an ominous sign for the ruling class.
It tells China is no more in the position of inflicting another ‘Tiananmen Massacre’. This is a demographically changed China with almost half of the population accessing the Internet somehow. The rapid urbanization of China is being termed as the biggest demographic change in the human history. Chinese farmers are taking the concrete dwellings. They constitute more than 60 per cent of the big cities according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
What Wukan tells us?
Though this village is in relatively well to do Guangdong province under a liberal party representative Wang Yang, it is still a small coastal village in the world’s most populous country that is also the third largest in the geographical spread. Wukan is an excellent example of empowerment through information riding on the social media surge.
And if this can be the case-in-point with a Chinese village, we can easily imagine the dots already connected on the information highway in a China that is more urban than rural now.
A significant portion is still, too remote, but this urbanization is more than enough to have real-time consequences for the Chinese power-elite if they don’t work intelligently and humanely to arrest the brewing unrest.
An assessment by The Economist says, “The Communist Party’s capacity to stop ripples of unease from widening is waning—just as economic conditions are making trouble more likely.”
China is staring at the clash of offspring(s) – and the striking chord is, the ambience is not what it was during the Cultural Revolution. The receiving lot is certainly not as complacent or compliant as it happened to be. Similar is the paradox about the commanding lot. They have to remain ruthless and at the same time, have to look liberal, if they continue with the prevailing political set-up in China.
Mortals are becoming immortals again and this time, there is no Mao.
A cultural revolution is happening in China but it is being fueled by the hopes of having an independent social security away from the pathetic days of the factory China; it is being fueled by the increased access to the hopes of having better living conditions; it is being fueled by creation of an ‘information consuming’ class in the ‘otherwise classless’ China; and it is being fueled by unavailability of this dream to the millions – after all, to aspire is naturally human and precursor to all the revolutions.
Revolutions, don’t they happen like this! – winning to win the better life, fighting with the energy of anarchists - power building rides on the wave of anarchy and consolidates on creating harmony in the post-revolution phase.
China of the moment needs to find ways for it.
Are the ‘princelings’ reading the signs?
Are they aware of the dilemma and subsequent anger of the ordinary Chinese who has lived the horror of the factory China of the not-so recent past?
Are they realizing the frustration of the young working Chinese to go back to that sort of life they have only heard about but would never be willing to go back?
A conversation in Lijia Jhang’s book "Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China beautifully captures the essence of the viewpoint of an Ordinary Chinese of a changing China. She writes, "'Revolution is not a dinner party,' our great leader Chairman Mao once warned. But today's revolution seemed to be all about dinner parties — most business deals, official or private, were concluded at a banquet table crowded with expensive items.”
The only road ahead for China is the road to the political reforms and more democratic rights.
How? That is the billion dollar question for the ruling power elite of the Middle Kingdom.