Nicholas Kristof: Rumblings from China

Yeah, more Kristof.

Rumblings From China
Published: July 2, 2006

In the 17 years since the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement, China has enjoyed an economic miracle and remarkable political stability. But my hunch is that that period of smooth sailing is now coming to an end.

Wildcat protests, some violent and involving thousands of people, have been exploding around the country. By the Chinese government’s own count, there are now more than 200 protests a day, prompted by everything from layoffs to government seizures of land.

The protests may grow if, as seems likely, China’s economic model appears less miraculous in the years ahead.

Labor costs are rising, and increased attention to the environment will also raise production costs. The rapid aging of China’s population (a huge problem in coming decades) will reduce the labor force’s share of the population. It’s also hard to sustain 10 percent annual growth rates as the base becomes steadily larger.

All this is likely to mean somewhat lower growth ahead. Some low-wage manufacturing jobs may move to cheaper countries like Vietnam, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Job shortages already anger newly minted university graduates. So even a modest slowing of China’s growth rate would mean more economic frustration for people to protest about.

The upshot is that I sense more fragility in the system than at almost any time in the 23 years that I’ve been visiting or living in China. Party officials say they feel it, too, and I think that’s why the leadership is so reluctant to devalue the yuan: it doesn’t want to risk factory closures, job losses and unrest.

These protests are becoming a part of daily life. When I was outside the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing, as my Times colleague Zhao Yan was being tried inside on trumped-up charges of leaking state secrets, a cluster of peasants appeared with red banners denouncing the seizure of their land. They pushed a wheelchair-bound 80-year-old, who was savvy enough to cry whenever a camera came near.

“We’re just ordinary people with no power and no money,” shouted the demonstration’s leader, Jin Xinhua. “There’s nothing we can do but protest.”

It’s possible to see the rise of protests simply as the evolution of China into a more open society. Some in the Communist Party leadership have argued for following the Taiwanese model toward greater democracy, and one attraction for Beijing is that the Communists might well win free elections if they held them.

But evolution doesn’t seem to be President Hu Jintao’s vision of the future; he’s a man who has praised North Korea’s political model.

The basic problem for Mr. Hu is that the incentives have changed over the last half-dozen years, encouraging more challenges to the system. As one dissident told me, in the past getting in trouble would mean a 10-year term in prison, alone and forgotten. “Now, if I go to prison,” he said, “I’ll get out after a year, and I’ll be a hero.”

True, some people are sent to prison longer (like my colleague, Mr. Zhao), but few people seem much intimidated.

“I’m not worried,” laughed Jiao Guobiao, a professor who was fired from Beijing University for writing scathing essays about the Communist Party — which he continues to write. “If they want to arrest me, let ’em.”

The upshot is a growing boldness spreading throughout the land. On this trip, a half-dozen people regaled me with stories about State Security (China’s K.G.B.) giving them confidential warnings to toe the line — which they scoffed at.

This boldness is significant because over the last half-century, the times when Chinese rose up to demand broad political change (1956, 1976, 1986, 1989) have not been the times they were most upset, but the times they were least scared. And now again, they’re not very scared.

So the country today reminds me of early 1989, before the Tiananmen protests, or of South Korea and Taiwan in the mid-1980’s as citizens began defying the dictatorships in those places. All around China, from Thailand to Indonesia to Mongolia, rising incomes and education levels eventually led to major protests demanding more accountable government.

I’m a believer in China, and I think it will end this century as the most important country in the world — after a wild ride. For now, my premonition is that the ferment in China will grow, and that the long calm since Tiananmen may be coming to an end.

The Discussion: 11 Comments

These discussions are a waste of time. For a nation of rude, ignorant, untrained, and uneducated workers trying to make any modern machine or system work is an effort in futility. Banking, traffic, lodging, transporation, manufacturing, virtually anyting that requires a logical efficient process is beyond the capabilities of the average Chinese. My recommendation: cut these worthless excuses for humans off from any contact with the rest of the world. Sell them nothing, do not allow them to travel anywhere, do not buy any of their wothless goods and let them rot in the hell they have created for themselves

July 1, 2006 @ 7:07 pm | Comment

I’ll let that comment stand for now so readers can mock and insult you. Let me start: You’re an asshole.

July 1, 2006 @ 7:43 pm | Comment

Richard, I second your reasoned and cogent analysis of Ahmet’s trollish maunderings.

I believe that the CCP is trying to deal, in their own way, with a 1.3 billion psi pressure cooker. They tighten down the lid in one place and allow the steam to vent in another. It’s the “slowly, slowly” strategy of system change – very Chinese! But, a dangerous game.

I really think they should move more quickly to having elections at the lowest local level. This would remove a lot of the heat they are taking caused by the corruption of local officials who are responsible for virtually all the present uprisings.

July 1, 2006 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

Jeez, Ahmet, did a Chinese person, I dunno, steal your girlfriend or something? Dang…

Where do these people come from?

I think the important point here is that the CCP is not united in how to deal with these pressures and problems. I don’t think Hu Jintao is representative of every CCP member. It will be interesting to see how these factional differences play out in the coming months/years.

July 2, 2006 @ 4:40 pm | Comment

The harsh comments I made stem from the utter frustration I feel living in this sometimes miserable country. The long term effects of the decisions made by China’s so-called leaders from Mao to Hu have taken what should be a prosperous, beautiful country and created the world’s largest political prison. The inability to innovate (perhaps as a result of the intellectual purge of the Cultural Revolution), the dire economic and social conditions faced by the vast majority of the population, the iron grip of a completely illegitimate government whose only raison d’etre is to maintain its dominance, all serve to create a society that is tolerable on a good day and unbearable on most.

It seems that every time someone in Beijing makes another pronouncement about reform the West is elated at the influence it wields. It’s a “see, we told you so” attitude about doing business with China. My earlier comments are based on a desire to choke the Chinese government into collapse. All the west does now is to accept anything as long as cheap, and I will repeat, inferior, products keeps rolling out. Yes, it is an isolationist stance, but it certainly is better than an aggressive military intervention. My comments were a call for a passive position on China, not a plea for actively doing anything to China or the Chinese.

Perhaps even a boycott of the 2008 infomercial (oops, I mean Olympics) would be in order. Nothing would be better then to the see the CCP completely lose face with a disastrous showing at that event (I don’t mean in the competition, but the orchestration of the event itself).

I enjoy this blog immensely and I was surprised at Richard’s response. I expected more.

July 2, 2006 @ 7:01 pm | Comment

Ahmet, look at your first comment again. I cannot tolerate language like that, where you say, with an aparently straight face, that they shouldn’t be allowed to travel, etc. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love these people. I can’t tolerate rhetoric that allows my blog to be labelled a “hate site,” as your comment does. Sorry – please try to understand that.

July 2, 2006 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

Yeah, Ahmet. Your second follow-up comment is perfectly reasonable. You’re expressing your frustration and that’s okay, and your analysis is thought-out and reasonable. But that other stuff – yikes. “Worthless excuses for human beings”? Come on!

I’ve met so many great people in China who have treated me with such kindness and warmth. I agree that China’s people have not been well-served by its rulers – (and Hu Jintao – what an utter, tragic disappointment).

But there’s a lot of good, a lot of potential, and what China needs is more exposure to other cultures, more of its citizens traveling abroad and getting a different perspective on things. Not isolation. Isolation is one of the things that created the Cultural Revolution. ‘Nuff said.

Check out China Law Blog, and this interesting post about what cities in China are succeeding, and why…

July 2, 2006 @ 11:31 pm | Comment

I feel like Kristof says this same thing every few years.

July 3, 2006 @ 8:10 am | Comment

calm down, I think Ahmet’s post is second-degree….

…or 65746453st degree….

(or a fake…)

July 3, 2006 @ 11:25 am | Comment

“never under estimate a peoples ability to maintain the status quo.”


July 3, 2006 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

“never underestimat a people’s ability to maintain the status quo, unless it is 1914, 1929, 1941, 1951, 1956, 1991, and several zillion other dates in which everything seemed all hunky-dory until the sh!t hit the fan”


July 3, 2006 @ 8:49 pm | Comment

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