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How China will Change

Continued from yesterday 

When life satisfaction disconnects from GDP growth, it has to be met in other ways to ensure the Party’s rule, and I believe we are approaching that moment. Today we will be looking at some of those options.

Note: while I do not have access to a crystal ball, I’m putting time frames on these issues to emphasize that these are not things that will be changed instantly, and to clarify the order in which they may happen.

Lowering Costs (The Present)

The Party knows that even though many Chinese people are far richer than their parents, many of them still cannot afford many of the basic appliances that can improve living standards. This is why the gov’t offers generous subsidies to people buying refrigerators, washing machines, and even televisions. While this was partially an effort to increase domestic consumption during the economic crisis, it has also helped maintain the Party’s popularity.

While I had read that this program was designed for China’s rural population, one of the doctors at my hospital told me that he had opted to purchase a new fridge instead of repairing the old one, because this choice was cheaper. He had a huge grin when he spoke of the savings, and the Party seems more than willing to foot the bill.

China has also been discussing further reducing taxes, even though the current rate is far below most (if not all) developed countries. As it stands , people are complaining of the 5-10% income tax they pay.

The gov’t is also scrambling to control inflation, housing prices, and even the cost of pork. Just today an article was published in the People’s Daily calling for an end to the “Cult of GDP”.

Social Programs (Next 5 years)

This is an area that I think is already undergoing major changes to help ensure the Party’s mandate to rule. In China’s most recent 5 year plan healthcare reform was one of the top concerns, and these concerns can be seen in the hospital I work in. Expanding medical coverage is just one way to improve the standard of living through social programs.

I would expect that they will also be pushing for further reforms in education and public transportation. These efforts will help to maintain favor beyond what a growing salary would maintain. At present these services are seen as inadequate, and I would expect these to be major expenditures over the next few years.

Better Environment (Next 5-10 years)

Much has been made of the recent protests in Dalian which were sparked over concerns of a PX factory (a deadly chemical). For the first time tens of thousands joined in the streets to demand action, and the gov’t did not crush them. While this protest was not about protecting the city’s green credentials, it was about citizen’s concerns about their own health (we’ll be looking at protests more tomorrow).

Beyond social programs, the Party is going to have to improve the environment if it wants to keep the people happy. This would most likely mean moving the worst factories to remote parts of China, because stability in the population centers is of the utmost importance.

When I visited Beijing in 2007 I was partnered with a local middle school student for language practice. When we visited the Temple of Heaven, the student could not walk more than 15 minutes without feeling in need of rest. Her lungs had been assaulted from birth by the capitol city’s filthy air. Citizens are just starting to demand action on air quality, and the Party will be forced to concede to maintain control (check out my review of When a billion Chinese jump, a thoughtful book on this issue).

Voice in Government (Probably 10+ years)

Once these other efforts fail to produce increasing life satisfaction (remember the Party needs improvement not just high satisfaction), and they will as there are again diminishing returns on each of these, the Party will be forced to take a final step – giving people a voice in gov’t.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that this new system will look like American democracy, but that it will be more transparent, and locally influenced than the current system. We are already starting to see the tiniest concessions in this area (which I mentioned last week in my discussion of Weibo), but the gov’t still is unwilling to make meaningful changes to the system.

At the moment the will of the people is limited to removing the most corrupt officials, but still lacks the ability to regulate gov’t much beyond the local level. This regulation is necessary to protect the other measures that were implemented to improve their life satisfaction.

Continued tomorrow when we’ll be considering how this change might come about.


14 Comments

  1. mrchopstik says:

    The government is willing to concede on points that don’t necessarily affect its stranglehold on power. The problem lies with issues that have any effect on that power – and therein lies the rub, particularly with environmental concerns. They may relax and allow some challenges there but, in the case of industry (which provides jobs/stability), industry will likely win and the concerns of the people are ignored. Any challenge is likely to be stamped out immediately.

    I recently had this conversation with someone else and they used the Olympics and how things were cleaned up for the Olympics. My response was that the Olympics was in the interests of government power and a symbolism of such and therefore a clean environment was to its benefit ahead of industry. And the reversion to its current state (particularly in Beijing) simply reinforces that argument in my opinion.

  2. I think for China to change this way the education system has to change first. Education is not just memorization and test taking but should also include critical and independent thinking about society and the world that trains students to think outside the box. While Society’s collective good is important, Chinese people should understand that individuals make an even greater impact day to day. Of course, this is my Western educated viewpoint.

    • Tom says:

      I think in the biggest cities this is already starting to change, since this kind of creative/critical thinking is needed to succeed in business. Education reform is probably going to happen over the next 5 years to maintain GDP growth. Also remember what happened in the square more than 20 years ago.

  3. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Book Review- When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will save mankind or destroy it How China will Change → […]

  4. Lao Why? says:

    Regarding education reform, it’s not a good day to talk since Beijing just closed 30 migrant elementary schools.
    Also, here is a link to the US Embassy Beijing Air Quality monitoring service. Of course, you can’t access it without VPN since it frequently contradicts the Beijing official numbers.

    http://iphone.bjair.info/

    Thankfully, it’s one of the best days of the year today.

    • Tom says:

      I did hear about them knocking down the migrant schools, which is a set-back for China’s migrant workers. However I think from the stability stand point, the gov’t is far more concerned about urban residents than they are about the other 700 million Chinese. As we’ve seen with the 90,000+ demonstrations this year, that they rarely spread from countryside to the city. Also with the protest in Guangdong we saw that urbanites do not support their migrant counter-parts. This will be further discussed in my next post.

  5. Heiney says:

    Curious if you saw this article: Mikhail Gorbachev: I should have abandoned the Communist party earlier.

    He touches on China briefly.

    As the hour-long interview neared its end, I asked the former Soviet president about change in China, the world’s largest Communist state. Gorbachev takes the long view of history but is sure reform there is inevitable. Any suggestion that he should have followed China by starting with economic rather than political reform is wrong, he says.

    “In the Soviet Union nothing would have happened if we had done that. The people were cut out, totally isolated from decision-making. Our country was at a different stage of development from China and for us to solve problems we had to involve people.”

    “Do you think the Chinese will be able to avoid the same hard choices at some point in time? There will be a moment when they will have to decide on political change and they are already nearing that point.”

    Conversely, it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if China had started with political reforms rather than economic reforms.

    *(I also left the same comment on HHR)*

  6. I like your post a lot, but a couple of points:

    Firstly, the Party’s legitimacy hasn’t always been neatly coupled with GDP growth in the way that you describe. (If it was, they’d be long gone)…True, there was some onus (during the Great Leap Forward especially) to show that socialism was the most successful social system economically. But in the early days, the Party was legitimate because a) it took the credit for fighting off the Japanese and b) Maoism promised to build a FAIRER society, not necessarily a richer one.
    I think some of this historical legitimacy remains, especially due to the censorship of history textbooks.

    Secondly, I also wonder if “life satisfaction” really does have to increase for the Party to maintain its hold on power. Certainly there are a few issues that the Party has chosen to deal with actively – like environmentalism and the social safety net – which is good stuff.

    But keeping the Party in power isn’t just about making people happy, unfortunately. It also involves actively discouraging people from speaking up for themselves. There’s a powerful negative aspect to the Party’s “mandate” – if you step out of line, you’re toast – that makes opposition extremely costly.

    Ultimately, I think, this balance between frustrations and the cost of dissidence is very difficult to gauge and make the future impossible to predict.

  7. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← How China will Change […]

  8. […] people, and preserving culture. You’ll notice that most of these topics are ones that I highlighted last week when talking about the gov’ts efforts beyond GDP to promote […]

  9. […] The third reason I think that the hukou system isn’t going anywhere, is that if local gov’ts had to actually provide urban benefits to migrant workers, the whole system would collapse. Consider that migrant workers earn only~2-3,000 rmb ($4-500) each month, but would require education, health care, police, and many other services, while providing a tiny tax base. Because of China’s tax structure, these gov’ts would not be able to provide even the modest level of services that they do today. By dividing the population in this way, it is possible to provide a higher level of service to the areas with the highest population densities, and keep the relatively powerful segment of the population happy (read my series on stability). […]

  10. […] 我认为户口制度不会有任何改变的第三个原因就是,如果把城市居民的利益分给农民工的话,整个体制就崩溃了。考虑到农民工的月收入只有两三千块钱(不到500美元),虽然他们也一样需要教育、健康医疗、警察保障,还有别的一些公共服务,但是他们能提供的税收基数又少得可怜。因为中国的税收结构问题,这些地方政府根本就不可能提供今天这种中等水平的公共服务。只有通过城乡二元化才有可能在人口密度大的地区提供相对较好的服务,从而取悦于相对强势的这一部分人。(可以参考我的关于稳定的系列文章)。 […]

  11. […] 我认为户口制度不会有任何改变的第三个原因就是,如果把城市居民的利益分给农民工的话,整个体制就崩溃了。考虑到农民工的月收入只有两三千块钱(不到500美元),虽然他们也一样需要教育、健康医疗、警察保障,还有别的一些公共服务,但是他们能提供的税收基数又少得可怜。因为中国的税收结构问题,这些地方政府根本就不可能提供今天这种中等水平的公共服务。只有通过城乡二元化才有可能在人口密度大的地区提供相对较好的服务,从而取悦于相对强势的这一部分人。(可以参考我的关于稳定的系列文章)。 […]

  12. […] the last few months we have seen several effective environmental protests that have led to meaningful results, most of which started online. It is wonderful to see Chinese standing up to polluting factories, […]

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