“In Fast-Growing China, a Warning About When Prosperity Isn’t Enough”

Some people say the Communist Party could survive an economic downturn; I’m skeptical. Even now, during this golden age of unbelievable growth rates, things are getting harder for them to control. The Atlantic has an article about the protests in Dalian which mentions some of the common gripes you hear all around China:

For the last three decades, China’s staggering economic growth has brought expanding opportunities and rising living standards to hundreds of millions. And social stability, as China’s leaders know well, is far easier to maintain when people generally feel that life is getting better; the Communist government is authoritarian, but so long as it’s able to deliver what most citizens want, its critics are fewer and quieter. It has no “mandate from heaven,” as China’s emperors once claimed, nor a popular mandate, but a de facto bargain. At some point, however, China’s growth will inevitably slow — perhaps in 10, 15, or 20 years, according to different estimates; or perhaps there will be a sudden crash and hard landing, as bear analysts James Chanos, Nouriel Roubini, and others have predicted. Much speculation surrounds what will happen next.

But even before an economic slowdown, another kind of strain is beginning to show: some of China’s well-to-do are starting to decouple rising incomes alone from a rising sense of well-being. In recent years, growing fears about food safety (contaminated milk-powder for babies; exploding watermelons) and dangerous infrastructure (a high-speed train crash; collapsing buildings), among other concerns, have provoked public outcry and Internet maelstroms criticizing the government. In the minds of at least some Chinese urbanites, especially young parents, such worries are beginning to outweigh the appeal of a yet larger apartment or flashier car.

When I arrived in Dalian the following Tuesday, several people spoke with me about why they’d marched that Sunday, although most asked that their full names not be used in print. Typhoon Muifa, and the distress it whipped up, was clearly the immediate cause that led to the demonstration, but there was something else on their minds, too. Now, at last, they had cause to put a name to it.

And it was this: the surprising and chilling conviction that Dalian’s best days were behind it. The prosperous city, their city, had seen its golden age come and go. Now daily life was more strained, and the city itself was literally falling apart. “Dalian used to be one of the most beautiful and great cities in China,” one university professor told me. “But now things are all downhill.” It’s not that this despair caused the protest, but it contributed to an atmosphere of tension that proved highly flammable when the right match was lit.

In one sense, Dalian seems to represent the most optimistic vision of China’s future. What could there possibly be to complain about?

A lot, it turns out. The air quality is “much worse than before,” I was told. “Once the sea and sky were blue, but now both are grey.” Recent construction on a subway system has been a “disaster” due to slipshod planning; the blueprints weren’t appropriate to the city’s porous bedrock. Already in 2011, five sections of newly built lines have collapsed, opening chasms in the sidewalks; at least one worker was killed. Traffic in Dalian is now a nightmare, not simply because there are more cars, but “because of bad urban design making the city center too dense.”

The lure of fast money means developers are rapidly throwing up new buildings without regard for livability; the local government, which receives money from land sales, does little to impose limits. “Because house prices go up, more and more are built, but they are not very well planned,” the schoolteacher told me. Magnificent historic buildings, erected by Japanese and Russians in the early 20th century, have been razed, replaced with cheap and quickly constructed high-rises. “The local people are angry,” one schoolteacher said of the new buildings. “They think: you destroyed our city’s culture.” Last year, a local activist campaigning to stop the wrecking balls told China Daily, “Our cultural diversity and identity is at stake. Without these buildings, Dalian is nothing but a common, modern city that can easily be duplicated.” But City Hall isn’t paying attention. “The government focuses on economic performance,” I was told, “but not the life of the citizens.”

Taken alone, perhaps none of these complaints is terribly dire or noteworthy, but together they add up to something that is: the sense that a place is going in the wrong direction. For decades, things only got better — in Dalian, as in many places in China — but now, many here say most things are getting worse. Residents are richer but feel less well off.

Growing dissatisfaction gnawing at the base of their support is just one of many huge problems the Party is facing today, but their refusal to acknowledge any of them and their reliance on the ‘just beat a few skulls in and the problem will go away’ strategy look like a loser over the long term. What happens when the golden age ends?

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Filed under Communist Party, economy, protests

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