Economic Downturn and Instability in China: Time for Political Reform?

Ray Yep
Ray Yep Professor and Assistant Head, Department of Public and Social Administration, City University of Hong Kong - CNAPS Visiting Fellow, 2001-2002, The Brookings Institution

April 8, 2009

China’s huge domestic market and its cautious approach to integration with the global financial system may have helped cushion the impact of the continuing financial tsunami. But although it has not felt the most severe aspects of the crisis, China’s economy is in no way immune to this global challenge. Against the backdrop of the bleak global picture, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has made all possible efforts to create a facade of confidence in the latest meeting of National People’s Congress (NPC). “As long as we adopt the right policies and proper measures and implement them effectively, we will be able to achieve this target [of 8% GDP growth in 2009],” Premier Wen Jiabao told the 3,000 delegates attending the annual session of the National People’s Congress in March.

This is the fifth year in a row the Chinese government has targeted 8% growth, but the contrast between 2009 and previous years could not be more vivid. In the last two years, the leadership’s goals were to moderate China’s hyper-growth and regulate its over-heated economy. This year, the concern is on how to ensure the minimum expansion essential for income growth and job creation, issues imperative for preservation of stability in China.

China’s unemployment rate is expected to reach 4.6% by the end of this year, the worst figure since 1980. Worse still, this figure does not include migrant workers from rural area. This troop of peasant workers has played a key role in economic growth in China. Their presence in the cities reduces labor costs, generates demand for goods and services, and placates rural society with their remitted income; the workers’ presence in the cities also reduces joblessness in the countryside. Unfortunately, even the most optimistic estimate predicts that at least 20 million of the 130 million migrant workers will lose their urban jobs in 2009, with factories in the Pearl River Delta particularly hard hit by the slump in export markets. Manufacturers in this area have already been severely affected by various policy developments in recent years, such as tightening of regulations over labor protection, an unfavorable renminbi exchange rate, and forced relocation of production triggered by Guangdong Province’s policy of technological upgrading. The untimely disappearance of orders from U.S. consumers is a body blow for many struggling factories in the south; temporary closures or massive layoffs have more or less become routine in the region over the last six months.

Unemployment on the rise

The existence of millions of disgruntled unemployed workers is a concern for any government, yet there are distinctive institutional features in China that make the regime particularly vulnerable to this threat. Decades of market reform have completely reshaped the nation’s mode of welfare delivery. The all-caring welfare philosophy of the pre-reform era, with the workplace supplying comprehensive support for its employees, is long gone. Though limited elements of a rudimentary welfare and entitlement system are present in the cities, an effective safety net for urban workers is still not on the horizon. The Chinese government is yet to hammer out a formula that fairly distributes burdens among employers, employees, and the state.

But it is the migrant workers, who receive no systematic support in times of need, who are the most at risk from the economic downturn. Rural-urban inequality is reflected not only in terms of discrepancy of life chances, income opportunities, and standards of living: the difference in welfare regime is also testament to the huge gap between the two worlds. Self-sufficiency is the defining feature of China’s rural welfare system, with peasants striving on their own to face economic ups and downs. With the economic and social systems in flux, and with no welfare system to serve as a tether, entitlement to the lease of land is crucial for the rural population. Land, and farming, provides a steady flow of income, cheap food, shelter, and most important of all, a sense of security. It is the last line of defense against economic disaster and a fall-back option for migrant workers.

However, in a severe downturn such as this one, when millions of these peasant workers eventually abandon their hopes in the cities and return home, many of them will have to face the cruel reality of landlessness. Many peasants lease out their lands when they take jobs in the cities, but others have been forced to surrender their land leases under less pleasant circumstances.

For revenue-hungry local governments, the sale of rural land is now a major source of income. More than one-third of revenue in county budgets now comes from land sales, which explains the general harmony between property developers, industrialists, and local officials in securing farmland for commercial purposes. As rural lands are “collectively owned”—Chinese peasants are entitled only to lease land for a fixed period of time and the ultimate control over land is in the hands of their “representatives,” village officials—peasants are simply at the mercy of local governments in defending their land leases. Waves of confrontation over land transfers in recent years attest to the general resentment of peasants against these transactions.

The effect of the Party’s latest decision in facilitating rural land transfers in alleviating tension remains uncertain. While the decision made in the 3rd Plenary Meeting of the 17th Party Congress held in October 2008 reiterates the peasants’ right to land contracts and allows greater flexibility in the exchange of land leases among peasants, specific policy prescriptions for regulating land requisition—the coercive sale of farmland for non-agricultural purpose by local governments—is missing.

The combination of presence of tens of million of frustrated, jobless, and landless people and the disposition of public security forces to sometimes employ excessive violence toward complainants appears to be the perfect recipe for confrontation and disturbance. The situation is so delicate that the Chinese government may consider it the lesser of two evils if some of these unemployed migrant workers prefer to stay in the cities.

Democracy as a safety valve?

In light of such pent-up frustration, it may be reasonable to ponder the option of expanding avenues for public participation in governance, as this may help serve as a safety valve for releasing social tension. Charter 08, a petition released on December 10, 2008, represents the latest effort to articulate this theory. Originally signed by more than 300 university professors, entrepreneurs, writers, lawyers, and social activists, the document is a deliberate attempt to imitate the founding of the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia. The Chinese document unleashes severe criticisms against the current political order in China:

“The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political challenge. The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decays in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.”

And the signatories go on to call for reforms enshrining the universal values of freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional rule. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has responded with coercive measures and a number of signers have been interrogated and held in police custody. Wu Bangguo, president of National People’s Congress, launched a further rebuttal to the initiative during the annual session of the Chinese legislature. In his report on National People’s Congress on March 9, 2009, he reiterated the distinctive path of Chinese democracy and excluded the possibility of implementing western ideas of bicameralism, multi-party rule, and separation of powers in China. In short, China will implement political reforms, but in its own style and pace.

It may be unfair to say that the Chinese government has been totally indifferent to popular demands for political reform. President Hu Jintao called democracy “the common pursuit of mankind” during his 2006 visit to the United States. And over the last three decades of market reforms, more than 250 new laws were passed, competitive elections have occurred widely at the village level across the countryside, and electoral experiments at the township and county levels were introduced. With the introduction of new laws like the Administrative Litigation Law, Chinese citizens do enjoy new leverage for redressing their grievances against the government. However, the bottom line for any form of political reform is that the Party’s dominance should never be challenged. As explained by Deng Xiaoping in the aftermath of Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, “the Party did make mistakes, but it was the Party itself that corrected its mistakes.” The central message, echoed in Wu Bangguo’s work report, is that the Party alone should pick the opportune moment and formula for political modernization.

CCP: Economic stability as the key to social harmony

For the Party leadership under Hu Jintao, 2009 is hardly an ideal year for audacious change in political institutions. It is the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident and the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation of Tibet. As the global economic crisis continues, it will also be a year of social and economic dislocations. For Party leaders, “social harmony,” a synonym for maintenance of the status quo and suspension of diversity, is the priority. Contrary to the ideas of liberals who see political freedom and democracy as the solution to conflicts and tension, the Party regards economic stabilization as a more reliable option for preserving order.

Central to the response to the trying time ahead is a 4-trillion-yuan ($586 billion) plan to boost the national economy and a drastic increase in public expenditure, as outlined in Premier Wen Jiabao’s Report on Government Work to the NPC. Generous support has been bestowed upon sectors directly related to people’s livelihood. For example, the plan calls for an 18% increase in social security spending and similar rise in direct subsidies to farmers in 2009. Another 850 billion yuan will be allocated for medical and healthcare reforms over the next three years. These “people-centered” policies, as phrased by Wen, do not come cheap however. The 24% increase in public expenditure this year has to be financed by a deficit of 950 billion yuan ($139 billion), the largest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Yet, for the Party, this is an expensive but effective strategy of governance. For the Chinese leaders and the CCP, the unabated economic growth and steady rise in living standard over the last 30 years provided a new lease of life following the ideological bankruptcy of the 1970s; economic growth is the proven way to placate the people and preserve the Party’s legitimacy.

Political reforms that may help strengthen the administrative competence of the Chinese bureaucracy or contribute to a more business-friendly environment are deemed as relevant and thus welcomed by the regime. Political liberalization, as advocated by vocal intellectuals and dissidents in exile, is not. History tells us that those in power may contemplate sharing power when popular pressure for change has reached the boiling point and there is a threat of violent takeover. Social tension in China may have been rising and grievances against rampant corruption and social injustice are growing fast, but – given its tenacity and because success in delivering economic progress has remained by and large intact – it is debatable whether the Communist Party has already lost the mandate to rule and is prepared to concede to pressure for fundamental political reform. Realistically, an opening for political reforms will only emerge when the Party feels comfortable with its power position and is confident of its ability to control the pace and direction of those reforms. The turbulence and adversity inherent in the current global financial meltdown hardly seem conducive to these sentiments.