China seen facing wave of unrest in 2009

Protesters stand behind a police line outside a government office in central Beijing on 20 October 2008.

Protesters stand behind a police line outside a government office in central Beijing on 20 October 2008. China faces surging protests and riots in 2009 as rising unemployment stokes discontent, a state-run magazine said. File photo/Reuters/David Gray/China

By Chris Buckley | Reuters

BEIJING, China, 6 January 2009

China faces surging protests and riots in 2009 as rising unemployment stokes discontent, a state-run magazine said in a blunt warning of the hazards to Communist Party control from a sharp economic downturn.

The unusually stark report in this week’s Outlook (Liaowang) Magazine, issued by the official Xinhua news agency, said faltering growth could spark anger among millions of migrant workers and university graduates left jobless.

“Without doubt, now we’re entering a peak period for mass incidents,” a senior Xinhua reporter, Huang Huo, told the magazine, using the official euphemism for riots and protests.

“In 2009, Chinese society may face even more conflicts and clashes that will test even more the governing abilities of all levels of the Party and government.”

President Hu Jintao has vowed to make China a “harmonious society,” but his promise is being tested by rising tension over shrinking jobs and incomes, as well as long-standing anger over corruption and land seizures.

China also faces a year of politically tense anniversaries, especially the 20th year since the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. That date has already galvanised the “Charter 08” campaign by dissidents and advocates demanding deep democratic reforms.

While foreign commentary about risks to China’s recipe of fast economic growth and one-party control are common, the nation’s leaders are usually reticent about such threats.

This report and other recent open warnings may be intended to help snap officials to attention, said one Chinese expert.

“The candour about these problems reflects the severity of the unemployment problem. It’s meant to attract the attention of all levels of government,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing.

“The government wants to show that stability is at the top of its agenda.”

Jobless and Bitter

The biggest threats to China’s social fabric will come from graduating university students, facing a shrinking job market and diminished incomes, and from a tide of migrant labourers who have lost their jobs as export-driven factories have shut.

Factory closures, sackings and difficulties paying social security had already unleashed a surge of protests, the report said. Officials in provinces that have provided tens of millions of low-paid workers for coastal factories have reported a leap in the number returning to their farm homes without work.

State statistical authorities estimated that close to 10 million rural migrant workers had lost their jobs, the magazine said, without specifying when the sackings happened.

Including students who graduated in 2008 and had not found work, there would be more than 7 million university and college graduates hunting for jobs this year, Huang calculated.

The government’s goal of annual GDP growth for 2009 of 8 percent would generate only 8 million new jobs for the whole country, he added. In 1989, discontented students formed the core of the pro-democracy protests.

“If in 2009 there is a large number of unemployed rural migrant labourers who cannot find work for half a year or longer, milling around in cities with no income, the problem will be even more serious,” said Huang.

Huang is Xinhua’s bureau chief in the southwest city of Chongqing, which has long been a cauldron of unrest. Other parts of China have also seen intense but brief and localized protests over police abuses, corruption and factory closures.

Ian Bremmer, president of the prominent political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said he foresaw no departure from that pattern and no overwhelming crisis.

“The party has built a large stockpile of domestic goodwill over the past three decades,” Bremmer told Reuters in an interview this week, offering a more optimistic outlook.

“Toughening economic times will erode some of that credit, but the reserves are too deep for China to reach a crisis point in 2009.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the government would be able to deal with the tough times.

“We have the ability and the confidence to ensure the Chinese economy’s stable and relatively fast growth and to ensure social stability,” he told a news briefing.

China’s economy expanded by 9.9 percent from a year earlier in the first nine months of 2008. But some economists doubt that the government can achieve its goal of 8 percent growth for 2009.

The Outlook report also stressed the nation’s strains were about more than growth rates. Protests were increasingly politicized, making it harder for officials to douse them by force or cash hand-outs, the report said.

“Social conflicts have already formed a certain social, mass base so that as soon as there is an appropriate fuse it always swiftly explodes and clashes escalate quickly,” said Huang.

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