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Turmoil Looming Over China?

For the last several years Chinese leaders have been talking about challenges to social stability. Although almost seeming routine to some outsiders, the Beijing Mandarins had more than one reason to be worried about. For them, the ultimate disaster would be a popular uprising against the Communist Party rule.

Yu Jianrong, a well known and outspoken senior sociologist at China’s premier research institution, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) recently related to a gathering of lawyers in Beijing what he heard from a group of retired “Ministry level” cadres when he visited them. One of them told him what many may be fearing but are afraid to say. This person told Yu: “You think that China’s society will not experience upheaval. I think it will definitely experience upheaval, and that time is not too distant”.

Yu Jianrong went on to explain that since 2007 China experienced more than 90 thousand peoples’ protest a year, and the size of these protests were increasing. This figure in higher than the average of around 80 thousand plus protests and demonstrations according Chinese official statistics available till 2005. The figures going up only suggest that the Chinese state has failed to come to grips with the situation.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) had cautioned late last year that there was definite threat to China’s social stability from both outside and inside and the ministry was making all efforts to face the challenges. The security budget for 2010 has been increased by 44%. Regional security budgets have been increased substantially with Xinjiang getting its budget almost doubled. Other provinces have also started spending heavily on security. For example China’s north-east province of Liaoning is spending 15% of its total budget on maintaining security.

The problems do not end with the protests, demonstration and strikes. Lives have been lost. Almost 200 people died in Xinjiang riots in July 2009. The March 2008 Tibetan uprising also cost lives. These have been topped with execution and long term jails for “instigators” by the state. China’s laws and judiciary are still dictated by state politics and not by a fair legal system. Despite promises from leaders the legal system has not seen any real change on the ground.

What would be high on the concern scale of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the increasing questioning it is facing from the people at large, the Han Chinese. This is far more serious in a way for the party than the challenges faced from the minority demands – the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Tibetans.

Hans comprise 94% of the 1.3 billion population of China. The Hans are also the governors of the state, the sole content almost of the armed and security forces, and the leading intellectuals, critics and party members apart from the party and state apparatus. The Han monolith is the life line of the party. If this begins to crack it can be anybody’s guess. The third plenum of the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s so-called parliament held in Beijing from March 6 to 14 this year, let fly some straws in the wind for the future. One delegate to the session, an intellectual, openly remarked that while the NPC was to become independent of the party, its Chairman Wu Bangguo, the Party’s Politburo’s Standing Committee Member, was trying to keep the institution under the Party’s control. That he got away with this criticism, at least till now, is remarkable compared to a few years ago.

On the eve of the NPC session, thirteen important regional newspapers wrote a joint editorial demanding abolition of Hukou or the family registration system of the Maoist era. This law was enacted by Mao Zedong to keep migration of peasants away from the cities. According to Hukou law, peasants are registered in their home place and do not get any legal rights for medical assistance, school admission for children and even from exploitation by employers if they migrate to another place. Of the thirteen newspaper editors, twelve were reprimanded by the authorities, and the one from Shanghai who drafted the editorial was dismissed from his job. This, certainly, is not the end of the story.

Delegates to the NPC also raised questions on party cadres–bureaucracy– business nexus in corruption, and lack of transparency in government decisions. Strong actions have been taken against pro-democracy leaders who asked for explanations on issues.

Some retired senior cadres have also taken cause supporting the questions. These retired cadres, who are more liberal in their political attitude unfortunately lack a platform after the powerful Central Advisory Commission (CAC) was disbanded by Deng Xiaoping after the 1989 Tien An Men (TAM) square incident. That CAC comprised mainly of the Long Marchers who were jolted by the pro-democracy movement by students. Most of them are dead and gone. Most of today’s middle to senior level retired cadres are more in tune to let the steam of frustration out and walk with the developments. None of them, however, question the one party rule. They advocate a caring and transparent CCP.

Despite the shining sky scrapers of Shanghai and Shenzen, show of opulence in the coastal cities, demonstration of economic and military power, there is a bleak under-canvas.

The official statistics of China say that unemployment is around 4%, while state think tanks put it nearer to 10%. The actual figure is said to be higher.

China is supposed to have surfed the global economic meltdown quite comfortably. But there are questions. Near about a 100 thousand export manufacturers closed shop during the economic collapse. This has let loose a huge number of workers in the coastal cities most of whom are migrants. The more than $ 500 billion economic stimulus released by the state have mostly gone to state owned banks, from which state owned enterprises have siphoned the maximum. These companies hardly pay back debts. The private sector received a pittance and, hence, many collapsed.

China is an export driven economy. The state of the purchasing power of China’s main export destinations – the US, Europe and Japan are not in the best economic conditions. China suffered a $10 billion trade deficit in March. Trade and currency war also erupted with the US. This does not portend well for the Chinese job market or the economy.

The housing bubble is beginning to attack serious attention of the authorities, and the totally state controlled media like the People’s Daily and the China Daily are taking cognizance of the building mafia-bureaucratic conspiracy. Housing is going beyond the means of the common man and they do not any longer have the protection of state housing. This also includes the medicare sector. There are many other issues, and corruption by and under the eyes of state officials is one of them.

The problems are huge and growing. In his government work report to the NPC plenum, Premier Wen Jiabao did not or could not assure the people of any reliable remedy. The issue is that the problems have been accumulating over the years and the income and livelihood differential between central China and the huge hinterland continues to increase. And, as the jobless of migrants in the cities increase it makes ground for another explosive situation. Assessments have been written whether China’s economy is a vulnerable bubble or whether it has firm foundations. Apart from overseas markets for its products, it is also hugely dependent on energy resources and raw materials imports.

That apart, the question that looms large is whether there will be a people’s upheaval or the protests will calm down. There certainly will not be a second TAM incident of 1989. Both the government and the students have learnt their respective lessons. The state will not use tanks, but riot control gears. The students are not going to take an honourable position against the state. If anything, there will be network uprising given today’s communication facilities. That will not be something that China’s neighbour like India will welcome. An unstable China is not good for anyone.

(The writer Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi with many years of experience. Email:

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