Seething but aimless discontent in China

Lately The New York Times has been running an unusual series of very good articles on social tensions in China. Long and detailed, they present case studies in rising tensions between the increasingly rich and the increasingly marginalized, poor, and exploited. It's unusual because the Western media typically focus on the persecution of a handful of highly educated intellectuals while ignoring the much more important problems of official corruption and abuse, unemployment and labor repression, and exploitation of migrant workers.

China's 'Haves' Stir the 'Have Nots' to Violence, 2004 December 31
This article captures exactly how much resentment against officials is felt by people, and how easily it can explode into riots (in the city featured here, for a few hours "the police were nobody and the people were in charge."). But it also shows how isolated the discontent is, with no national connections being made between the countless local protests, and no understanding of the systemic causes of official abuse and widening inequality, viz. government authoritarianism and market reforms. People all over the country hate the local officials that suck them dry with taxes, fees, and fines, but they don't question the legitimacy of the state itself.

Rural Exodus for Work Fractures Chinese Family, 2004 December 21
The story of a family from the rural interior, one among tens of millions of others, broken apart by the need of the parents to become migrant workers in rich eastern cities. The rural system of social services has been dismantled by market reforms, leaving families on their own in paying for their children's schooling and medical bills. In the cities they work in sweatshops, denied even the chance to return home for China's most important holiday, Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). Or they come to build the luxurious new apartment buildings and corporate headquarters, sleeping in unheated warehouses on plywood beds. These migrants are the cheap labor welcomed by city officials and prospering Chinese companies, building the rich new China but denied any share of its wealth except what will keep them alive.

Farmers being moved aside by China's real estate boom, 2004 December 8
A village in remote Shaanxi province's crop lands are taken by local officials and leased to developers for 50 times as much as the farmers are given. The village fights back, petitioning Beijing, but the central government merely refers the matter back to the local officials who were at fault in the first place. Their options exhausted, the villagers occupy the local government offices, until their occupation is brutally suppressed. The same story is recurring all over China as powerless rural farmers have their lands confiscated by officials seeking to cash in on the opportunities that economic liberalization has opened for those with good connections.

China Crushes Peasant Protest, Turning 3 Friends Into Enemies, 2004 October 13
Yet another tale of regular people fighting a highly localized battle against official corruption and ending up with nothing. One small section highlights a couple key points:

The government uses China's 800 million farmers to provide grain, labor and capital for urban development. State banks take deposits in rural areas but make loans almost exclusively to richer ones. The authorities pour resources into prestigious urban projects, like the $1.24 billion Shanghai spent to build a state-of-the-art Formula One racetrack and play host to the European event through 2010.

Villages rarely get such help. All farm families, regardless of income, pay land and agriculture taxes as well as fees for social services, often exceeding what wealthier urban residents pay.
This is suggestive of several important issues that even good news articles don't examine: the lasting historical patterns structuring developments in China, and the key role of the state in China's economic "miracle".

To take the latter first, we are reminded that - contrary to market dogmatists - China's extraordinary economic expansion is anything but a triumph of laissez faire doctrines. Today's economic growth would not have been possible without the decades of a state-controlled economy that built an industrial and infrastructure base. Nor can we ignore the key role the state continues to play even after giving up overall control of the economy to markets. It is the state that has chosen which areas to favor for investment and construction (urban areas, mostly on the east coast), and it is the state that has consciously dismantled social protections for all but privileged urban residents. The poverty and exploitation of those highlighted in these articles is not a "natural but regrettable" side effect of a developing economy, as many comfortable commentators believe, but a deliberate result of state policies.

And second, China's rulers have always viewed the peasantry as a resource to be exploited (the radical left faction of Communists during the years of Maoism has been the only exception, tho they often advanced catastrophically bad policies). Under the command economy, the produce of the peasants was extracted to industrialize the country; today the same kind of exploitation continues, only thru market mechanisms.

The subordination of the rural majority is likely to continue unless and until a new vision of a radically democratic and egalitarian China takes hold. The absolute lack of any such ideology amongst the billion or so people who fill the ranks of China's "losers" does not bode well.

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