By Collin Spears, Chief Foreign Policy Correspondent,
Washington D.C. Bureau
The consensus of mainstream China analysts is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a unified entity that is destined to guide China into a new golden where it will enjoy global superpower status. This sanguine narrative is maybe challenged as the current global economic recession has served to elucidate the genuine fragility of China’s political economy. Stability in the immediate future, let alone, decades from the present, is not a fact to be taken for granted, but a likely possibility to be continuously observed and evaluated.
The Chinese leadership is less of a cohesive organism than a mixture of overlapping and competing regional, ideological, and institutional interests. This leaves China vulnerable to conflict. The glue that binds the various CCP factions and the monied elites is a vast patronage system made possible by 20 years of unprecedented economic growth, no Maoism or a constitutional “balance of powers”. The Chinese elite are conscious of this. Even President Hu Jintao recognized the importance of various factions to maintaining national stability by designating two possible successors from divergent ideological perspectives, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. The CCP has also been touting the phrase “zhengdi tuandui” (team of rivals) in the media, in reference to political cooperation, which seem to be part of President Hu’s larger goal of creating a “Harmonious Society”. China’s ability to realize this harmony is heavily dependent on the financial liquidity that feeds its “Leviathan”.
Most sources will site China as the third largest economy in the world, just behind Japan; however, according to the World Bank and IMF (2007 figures), China has the world’s second largest economy, if Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is adjusted by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). The PRC (People’s Republic of China) has $1.9 trillion USD in foreign exchange reserves, which provides it with a measure of security against the current global recession (Prasad 2009).
Unlike the world’s two largest economies, America and Japan, China will likely avoid a domestic recession, but it has not escaped unscathed. From October to December last year, a collapse in exports only exacerbated the slowdown in China’s growth already occurring since January 2008. The latter was actually purposely created by the implementation of domestic banking policies intended to fight inflation. By the 4th quarter of 2008 growth had slowed to a meager 6.8 percent, and the Chinese stock market had also lost 65 percent of its value (roughly $3 trillion USD) (Hamlin et al. 2009).
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, recently made the optimistic prediction, that despite the economic downturn, China will see an 8 percent economic growth rate in 2009. Even an 8 percent growth rate would still fall under the decade average of 11 percent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), being less assured, projected China’s 2009 growth at just 6.7 percent. It should be remembered that Chinese figures should always be viewed with healthy skepticism due to weaknesses in data collection and ambitious local officials seeking to aggrandize themselves before their superiors. Counterintuitively, some analysts actually believe, overall, China routinely understates growth to avoid the appearance of an economic bubble.
It is likely that the source of Wen’s confidence is the Chinese government’s proposed stimulus plan and the current state of the banking system. Chinese banks have limited international exposure; being less integrated, they were not as affected by the financial crisis. The PRC’s $584 billion USD (~4 trillion Yuan) stimulus package is roughly 6% of its total GDP (Wines 2009). The package will focus on training migrant workers, R&D and improving infrastructure. There is also a special emphasis placed on improving domestic companies’ international competitiveness by streamlining the approval process for these companies to make foreign acquisitions, especially in automotives; textiles; energy; electronics and machinery sectors.
China’s banks are funding this corporate expansion by lending at a higher rate than at any time within the last year. It is expected that Chinese corporate investment of $16.3 billion last year could double this year (Cha 2009). Globally the value of mergers and acquisitions has dropped by over 35% (Cha 2009). Chinese companies have particularly focused on buying up billions of dollars in strategic natural resource assets in Iran, Brazil, Venezuela, and France. The Chinese government has used loans in Russia, Brazil, and Venezuela to ensure state owned energy companies secure deals. For example, China will supply up to $25 billion in loans to Russia in exchange for long term deals for the China National Petroleum Corporation. This will likely spur further concerns over future availability and price of these resources in nations that are in competition for them.
This is a sea-change in activity considering the attitude of the CCP in 2007. In that year, the CCP established credit quotas that domestic banks were subject to and they were continually adjusted upwards by the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, as inflation became a significant concern. Exports grew only 9.4 percent for 2008 a downward trend from the decade’s average of 20 per cent (Woo 2009). Export growth in January 2009 was -17.5 percent, industrial production also dropped (Woo 2009). After the conditions of the last two years, the state-owned banks (SOBs) are quite willing to follow the stimulus mandate to increase lending and they also cannot now be held responsible for future nonperforming loans. Much of the stimulus money will be cycled through the banks and loaned to State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) and local governments. The CCP Standing Committee, partially in response to current and anticipated public pressure, have already made vague comments about the need for more transparency in how the stimulus package is spent, to head off corruption that could lead to public outrage.
China’s financial liquidity is largely a result of its people’s exceptionally high savings rate; China’s households save nearly 25% of their disposable, although they get low or even negative rates of return from the banks and financial markets. The recent decrease in exports has inversely effected employment, making the situation of the most vulnerable citizens precarious. The Asian Development Bank has found that China has one of Asia’s highest income inequality rates. In 2004, the combined income of the richest 20 percent being 11.4 times the aggregate income of the poorest 20 percent (Woo 2009). These numbers have gotten progressively worse every year since. China has been trying to grow its domestic market, but consumption was low before the global recession and savings high due to the lack of social safety nets. There are three year plan to provide universal health care and education. Currently, Chinese consumer spending accounts for only 35 percent of China’s GDP, whereas in America it is two-thirds.
By February of 2009, there were 20 million unemployed migrant workers, which was double the estimate of December 2008; and an additional 6 to 7 million low skilled rural residents are expected to join the migrant workforce, as many multinationals are cutting back or shutting down factories (Woo 2009). For the employed, raises in salary have fallen for the first time in 4 years (Bradsher 2009). The only upshot is that wage deflation somewhat halts China’s recent loss in price competitiveness regional revivals, such as Vietnam, Philippines, and Cambodia.
There has been much talk in the Western media over the last year concerning Chinese government crackdowns on ethnic minorities in the provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, but this behavior is not isolated to minorities on the periphery of China Proper; to the contrary, the majority of these actions seems to be in response to the uptick in “mass incidents” in Han majority areas.
The Chinese government has hired more than 40,000 state employees to police the 250 million Chinese that are on the internet in an effort known as the “Golden Shield Project” (Mooney 2004). Thousands of websites have been banned or censored and even text messages have been filtered. Many analysts supposed the increase in arrest and crackdowns were temporary, due to sensitivity around the Olympics Games, but this has proven incorrect. The crackdowns are directed at any criticism of the government that could cause poplar discontent, such as the “Tainted Milk Scandal” and last springs’ Sichuan Earthquakes, as well as any talk of democracy, Taiwan, Tibet, and other such contentious issues. It maybe that this is a two pronged approach, as Premier Wen, in early March, made his first internet address to the online Chinese community to encourage controlled discussion as an alternative to citizens possibly taking to the streets of China’s major cities.
The Chinese government has not published official figures on “mass incidents”, a CCP term for riots; demonstrations; and protests since 2004. In that year 74,000 incidents were recorded, a 28% change over the previous year. Foreign analysts, drawing on Chinese sources, estimated the 2005 figure to have been 80,000-85,000 (Keidel 2006). Considering the trend line, starting from 1993, there is no reason to think the number of incidents has not increased at the historic average of 20% a year. The weak performance of the PAP in the pre-Olympic riots in Tibet, which resulted in the PAP forces reportedly losing control of the situation and forcing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to become involved, surely caused alarm inside the CCP and the military. In January 2009, President Hu gave an ominous warning that the People’s Armed Police (PAP), that they will face difficult challenges ahead.
There has also been an increase in the number of “black houses,” unofficial jails for citizens that exercise their right to petition the national government in Beijing, a last desperate attempt to addresses grievances with provincial officials peacefully. The Chinese government denies the existence of these jails, but citizens are being abducted off the street, usually at the behest of local party cadre, in or in route to Beijing, to prevent them from filing embarrassing appeals. The Chinese state media has reported that 10 million such petitions have been filed in the last five years on complaints as diverse as unjust taxation, illegal land seizures and unpaid wages.
The fundamentals of the Chinese economy may be strong, but they are not “harmonious”. The history of China is instructive; in that, most revolutions in China have come from rural areas in bad economic times when the central government is seen as impotent, having lost the “Mandate of Heaven”. This “right of rebellion” against an unjust or ineffective rule has been a part of Chinese political philosophy since the Zhou Dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC). The CCP is acutely aware of this history; its own origins lie in a rural populist movement led by a charismatic leader against a corrupt and incompetent regime. The CCP has also been a diligent study of how perestroika and glasnost led to the fall of the Soviet Communist Party.
The current global economic crisis has revealed significant cracks in China’s political and economic system. Harmony will be heavily dependent on the length of the global downturn and how adaptive and not reactive the CCP is to changing circumstances. It will also be contingent upon if the CCP earnestly intends to make substantive movements toward greater freedom of speech, tort reform, restraining graft and banking reform. If recent overture from the party elites are just a guise designed to ride out any potential threats to party power by strengthening security forces and drawing out potential enemies, this could be catastrophic, especially if the party’s patronage system’s life-blood does indeed dry up, corruption could increase in tandem with poverty. These twin forces would disproportionately strike rural areas, where most Chinese still live. In this situation the CCP’s “Great Wall” against the people will be the security forces. Due to the fractious nature of Chinese politics, it is quite possible that some members of the elite, especially of the tuanpai (populist faction) or even the military, could exploit this situation to their own political advantage. They could use populist appeals targeted to the urban poor and rural peasants to weaken their rivals. Hopefully the global economic downturn will be short lived or those who keep predicting China’s inevitable success will have to hedge their bets on the CCP reforming itself in a crisis. Historically, power does not willingly concede when under threat.
Bradsher, Keith. 2009. “In Downturn, China Sees Path to Growth”
New York Times Online.
Cha, Ariana Eunjung. 2009. “China Gains Key Assets In Spate of Purchases:
Oil, Minerals Are Among Acquisitions Worldwide”
Washington Post Online.
Hamlin, Kevin and Li, Yanping. 2009. “China’s GDP Growth Slowed to 6.8% in Fourth Quarter (Update2)” Bloomberg Press Online.
Keidel, Albert. 2006. “China’s Social Unrest: The Story Behind the Stories”
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mooney, Paul. 2004. “China’s ‘Big Mamas’ in a Quandary”
Prasad, Eswar. 2009. “The Effect of the Crisis on the U.S.-China Economic Relationship”
Wines, Michael. 2009. “China Outlines Ambitious Plan for Stimulus”
New York Times Online.
Woo, Wing Thye. 2009. “China’s Short-term and Long-term Economic Goals and Prospects”