Perry Link is a China specialist and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside.
The global economic downturn is hurting ordinary Chinese people: Factories are closing, construction is grinding down, and school teachers, office workers, and even police are beginning to protest that they are not being paid. As during earlier crises in the People's Republic (including the Mao years), the weakest people in society are the most vulnerable. Human Rights Watch has issued a report warning that "the economic crisis could well spark a ‘race to the bottom' in rights protections." Migrant laborers--who are primarily young, female, from rural villages, and denied the rights of legal residency at their workplaces--are most at risk.
But for the ordinary people in China's authoritarian political system, the pain of an economic slump is also laced with some benefits. Here are three:
- The downturn obliges China's rulers, who are fearful that "instability" could threaten their grip on power, to listen more carefully to what people at the bottom are saying. In a democratic system, this effect is normally achieved by a politician's fear of the ballot box--which, even if it peaks only periodically, tends to lurk in mind. In China, where ballot boxes are bogus and an official's fate depends upon the favor of superiors, an order from the top that says "pay attention to the bottom" achieves a sort of democratic effect, even if the mechanism is hardly democratic.
- The economic "stimulus package" that China's rulers have announced will likely do actual good for ordinary people. New low-cost housing, much-needed new railroad lines, and a universal healthcare system are examples of "domestic spending" that were not in the government's budget before the recession hit. The motive for the new spending may be only to muffle "instability" and thereby save Communist Party rule of China for another decade or two. And much of the stimulus spending will likely be lost to corruption. But still some benefits will survive. Ordinary Chinese are better off when the hundreds of billions of yuan (and dollars!) in China's coffers must be spent on "stimulus" instead of on the other purposes of the tiny group at the top.
- It could happen--one never knows--that "instability" from the economic slowdown might contribute to an end to one-party rule in China. That would be good. The Chinese citizens who recently drafted "Charter 08" wrote that "unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics." China's rulers demur, arguing that "chaos" would result from more democratic system. But the rulers bear the burden of proof to show that this is so. The historical record of Communist China to date shows that chaos has consistently originated from the top, not the bottom, of the power structure. The Chinese people should not hope for a worsening economy; but if it is going to come anyway, they might as well hope that it will bring political change.