Some China-watchers I know think that if China slips up or worse, comes up against popular resistance, the cause is less likely to be found in China’s debt situation or anything that’s directly economy-related and more in more visceral areas such as environmental degradation, inequality, and concerns that the government’s rhetoric about improving the quality of life is just that. During the last month, they’ve added a couple more data points, sadly, that will probably come to nothing, but are nevertheless notable.
In one story, the education provider RYB Education Inc. was obliged to remove the head of one of its kindergartens in Beijing on account of several allegations of child abuse. The fact that RYB is a New York listed company operating 80 direct and 175 franchise kindergartens in 130 cities and towns probably accounts for the publicity this case has achieved, and it is quite likely that it would have been hushed up otherwise.
It isn’t known how big a problem this is, but according to Caixin Global, another RYB establishment was implicated in abuse in 2015, resulting in the incarceration of 4 teachers, and only last month there was an incident at a Shanghai day-centre that lead to the discovery of 60 cases of mistreatment of children.
In the second case, with winter setting in and temperatures diving, tens of thousands of rural migrants have been forced out of their homes in Beijing, in the wake of a tragic fire in the southern suburbs of Daxing on 18th November in which 19 people died. It turns out that 400 people were living in a 2-storey structure that also served as a workshop and refrigeration warehouse for vendors, but the evictions were not confined to the location of the fire.
Unsigned eviction notices appeared the following day, suggesting that the fire may have been the catalyst for a social programme planned in advance to ‘clean up’ rental units, warehouses, wholesale markets, recycling yards, parking lots, and small businesses. Population control has figured prominently in Chinese policy-making for decades, and with rapid urbanisation set as a major objective nationwide, the largest cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are keen to cap or lower their own populations amid rising levels of congestion, water stress and pollution. Clearly, though, not all cities can do this, as those that leave look for new homes in other agglomerations.
The seemingly orchestrated campaign against what social media refer to as the ‘low end population’, has met with an equivocal response. They have lead to a vocal outcry from academics and artists, for example, decrying the ‘trampling of human rights’. Yet,
city and local governments, and urban residents have long distanced themselves from the financial burdens required to integrate rural migrants as anything more than second-class citizens. To be recognised as an urban citizen, and have access to public housing, schooling, welfare, and healthcare, you have to have ‘hukou’ registration, and while the goal of liberalising the hukou system has seen many pilot themes and iterations in recent years, there has been little material change in China’s largest towns and cities – which is where most migrants are and want to go. At the same time, cities and towns depend on the 250 million-strong migrant population for factory and menial work, on-line deliveries, and taxi and other urban services.
In the wake of the Congress
Remember the fanfare at the Communist Party’s 19th Congress last month, at which President Xi Jinping was almost deified at the head of the Party. One of the important things that came out of the Congress was confirmation about the centralisation of power around Xi Jinping at the head of the Party and the building-out of a more authoritarian leader and government.
Another important take-away was a rather esoteric but important change in the Party’s central contradiction. For 35 years, this had been framed in terms of a struggle between improvements in ‘the material and cultural needs of the people, and backward social production’. This resulted in economic growth pretty much at any cost (for example to the environment, equality and so on). This year, the Party switched the focus to the struggle between still ‘inadequate and unbalanced development and the people’s ever growing needs for a better quality of life’. It has prompted China-watchers to wonder if China is now going to or will soon downgrade growth, per se, at any cost (for example, to unemployment, business closures, credit creation and so on). For now, we don’t know, and we may not really discover until the weight of evidence pointing to slower economic growth increases more in 2018-19.
In the meantime, though, incidents like the two highlighted above, are only likely to colour people’s scepticism about ‘authority’ or cause them to worry about their economic or social security. They certainly don’t provide early evidence that greater authoritarianism and a better quality of life have become quite the hand-maidens that were showcased at the Congress. As I suggested at the outset, these incidents will probably be off the radar screen before very long, but they, along with scores of incidents of labour unrest and strike activity, are indicative of underlying tensions that should not be dismissed lightly, especially as and when the economy does slow down further.