“Why China Is Unhappy”

Building on that last post, the WSJ writes about growing criticism of the government here:

On the Chinese equivalents of Twitter, criticism of the government is exploding, despite fierce censorship. A recent poll by Tsinghua University and the magazine Xiaokang found that 40% of Chinese are unhappy with their lives, while another survey by the magazine Outlook and Peoples University found 70% of farmers dissatisfied, mainly because of land seizures. Some 60% of the rich are emigrating or considering doing so, according to a survey by the Hurun Report and the Bank of China. Even the People’s Daily warned last week that there is a “crisis of confidence” in government.

The crisis is real, but the Communist Party mouthpiece didn’t quite get it right. Chinese lost faith in local-level officials a long time ago, but until recently they continued to believe in their national leaders. They also largely accepted the post-1989 social contract in which the Party provided rising living standards in return for not questioning its monopoly on power.

This is changing as a result of two trends. The first is a growing awareness among the bottom strata of society that it is policy made at higher levels, not merely the incompetence or corruption of local officials, that is responsible for their woes. The second is the interest of the wealthy and the intellectuals in reform after two decades of being bought off by the Communist Party.

Beijing intellectuals are making pilgrimages to the remote Shandong town of Linyi where blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng is under house arrest. Since the tax authorities last week presented the dissident artist Ai Weiwei with a $2.4 million bill for fines and back taxes, a movement has sprung up to donate money, both electronically and in paper airplanes delivered to his house, to keep him out of prison. Anger over the government’s concealment of air pollution levels, even as the leaders in Beijing install air purifiers to protect their own health, has spawned another ad hoc campaign.

What seems to be turning the tide toward political activism is a realization that unless one is a member of the Party elite, upward mobility is limited and hard-won advancement can be taken away without due process. Since universities expanded enrollments in the early 2000s, many families have borrowed heavily to pay tuition for their children. But graduates without political connections have trouble getting on the career ladder, ending up joining the “ant tribe,” slang for educated young people living in slums. Meanwhile, the children of elites can street-race their Ferraris without fear of arrest.

The government response to all this unhappiness has been to increase the resources and power of the domestic security apparatus. This year the budget for security surpassed that of the military for the first time, and disappearances of dissidents have become commonplace. Instead of cowing the population, this is only creating more instances of official abuse that are publicized on the Internet, leading to greater anger and defiance.

Alarm bells should be ringing. The virtuous cycle of social stability and material progress that has persisted for two decades is going into reverse. This need not lead to disaster, as long as the Communist Party recognizes its mistakes and responds to the public desire for the rule of law and curbs on the power of the state. Otherwise there is more unhappiness ahead.

Couldn’t agree more. I’ve said it before, but the system barely seems to work now, and has no strategy for what to do in the future. As Susan Shirk said, China today is a ‘fragile superpower.’

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Filed under activism, class conflict, Communist Party, corruption, local governments

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