Interestingly, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) “harmonious society” does not feature as prominently in official Chinese propaganda as it did a while ago. This is not entirely surprising, considering the social unrest that China has been experiencing in different parts of its territory.
And this is not just because of the economic downturn, which is making things worse. The crisis has worsened the employment situation, sending millions of rural migrants back to the countryside, where things are more dire.
The diversion of resources from the rural hinterland to develop an industrial economy had already created a wide gap between the countryside and urban areas.
Aside from arbitrary local taxes and entrenched corruption among party hacks, people in rural areas have had their land taken away (with little or no compensation) to make it available for the industry.
The diversion of water for urban use and/or pollution from industrial chemical waste has further compromised rural economies and quality of life.
The pillaging of rural assets to subsidize the urban economy has forced millions of rural workers to flock to urban industrial centers in search of jobs.
And since these workers are not entitled to the social and legal benefits of urban residency, they are easy prey for employers and virtually anyone else powerful enough to exploit them.
They are paid abysmal wages (held in arrears in many cases), with little or no recourse to legal process.
That they still came in millions to work in urban ghettoes is a sad commentary on the state of the rural economy.
This is how China’s economy became internationally competitive, making it, as many call it, the factory of the world.
Commenting on the axis between party elites and developers, Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who was deposed as party secretary-general for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and subsequently spent rest of his life under house arrest until his death, reportedly said: “The government seizes land from the people, pushing the price down to a minimum, then hands it over to developers to sell it at a huge markup.”
As a result, he said, “We now have a tripartite group in which the political elite, the economic elite and the intellectual elite are fused.”
“This power elite blocks China’s further reform and steers the nation’s policies toward service of itself,” he said.
But popular resistance has been building up for a number of years. In December 2005, for example, a riot in Dongzhou, Guangdong Province, against plans to build a power plant on land taken without compensation resulted in the killing of 20 people at the hands of security forces.
Lately, there have been instances of protests organized across provinces, as in the case of taxi drivers striking against the high cost of cab rental.
The cumulative economic and social pressures over the years and the desperate need for a political outlet to air grievances is starting to fray the tripartite bond between the “political elite, the economic elite and the intellectual elite” described by Zhao.
The most telling example was the signing of Charter 08 in December by several hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and others seeking the end of one-party rule and its replacement by real democracy based on freedom, respect for human rights, equality and rule of law.