Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Economic change in China

China is changing from an industrial economy to a service economy (not long after changing from an agricultural economy to an industrial one). Service economies grown more slowly than industrial ones, but the political leaders are counting on continued rapid growth. Will political change follow the economic changes?

China has gained hugely from globalisation
Factory workers in America and Europe often blame China for stealing their jobs. There is no doubt that China has benefited enormously from its vast pool of people… who are willing to work for a fraction of what Western counterparts might earn…

Yet many of the worries that have recently animated Western voters are common in China, too. Working-class Chinese, as well as members of the new middle class, fret about rising inequality, the impact of mass migration from the countryside into cities and job losses…

[T]he government has sensed the danger of rising public anger created by the divide between rich and poor (in the 1980s China was among the most equal societies in the world; now it is one of the least so). A decade ago it switched its “chief task” from “economic construction” to establishing a “harmonious society”—ie, one with a more even distribution of wealth (as well as a beefed-up police force to keep malcontents in check)…

But many people feel that inequality and social mobility are getting worse in other respects. For example, members of the fast-growing middle class complain about the emergence of a new plutocracy. They say that the wealthiest owe their fortunes to corruption and personal relationships [guanxi], not hard work…

Among blue-collar workers, a structural shift in China’s economy, from labour-intensive manufacturing to higher-tech industries and services, is fuelling job insecurity. In 2013, for the first time, the contribution to GDP from services, such as transport, shops, restaurants and finance, pulled ahead of industry, including manufacturing, mining and construction (see chart)…

Millions more jobs are threatened by efforts to reduce overcapacity in bloated and heavily indebted state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as steelmakers and mining companies. Nervous officials often prefer to prop up such businesses rather than risk an explosion of unrest among laid-off urban-born workers…

Many of those who used to work in factories… are ill-equipped to find new jobs in service industries. Official data show that more than two-thirds of workers laid off in recent years were poorly educated and around half were aged 40 or older. Those are big handicaps…

As anxieties grow, migrants are likely to suffer. Like those in the West who resent foreign immigrants, Chinese urbanites often blame their cities’ problems on outsiders, albeit on people from other parts of the country (who often speak very different dialects and lack “civilised” city ways). The 280m such migrants in urban China feel marginalised and resented…

Anti-elite sentiment, such as Britain and America are experiencing, is the party’s worst fear. Mr Xi is a member of the party’s upper class: his father was Mao’s deputy prime minister until he was purged. Many of his closest allies are also “princelings”, as offspring of the party’s grandees are often called. [See guanxi.] That is why he has tried hard to portray himself as a “common man”, highlighting his experiences of living in a cave and working in the fields during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He is appealing to popular nationalism, too, with talk of the country’s “great rejuvenation” and the “Chinese dream” (shades of Mr Trump’s “Make America Great Again”).

China does not have the complication of free elections, much less referendums. But the party feels that it needs to appear responsive to popular opinion in order to stay in power. That is becoming more difficult as economic growth slows and the main public demand—for greater wealth—becomes harder to satisfy…

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