Friday, November 18, 2011

Widening Political Cracks in China’s Political Economy

More signs of the simmering tension between China’s political top-bottom leadership and bottom up forces (average Chinese)

In what appears to signal China’s prospective political actions, China has recently awarded the new Confucius Peace Prize to Russia’s autocratic leader Vladmir Putin.

Why Putin? The Wall Street Journal Editorial explains

A 16-member committee of Chinese scholars announced on Sunday that this year's winner is Vladimir Putin. To most of the world, the Russian prime minister may inspire many adjectives, but man of peace isn't one of them. The image he likes to project is that of the tough-guy Russian nationalist.

Which is precisely why the Chinese say they chose him. The Confucius committee cited in particular "his iron hand and toughness" and "large-scale military action" during the 1999 war in Chechnya. The committee cited as well "his teenage dream," subsequently realized, to join the Soviet secret police and his opposition this year to NATO's bombing campaign in Libya. Apparently Moammar Gadhafi, since deposed and now dead, wasn't eligible.

China created the Confucius Prize last year, in its fury that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to dissident Liu Xiaobo. It's a kind of anti-Nobel, and in that sense it is meant to flatter both Mr. Putin and China's government. China's Communist Party sees a kindred soul in a man who has stayed in power in Moscow for 12 years and has designs on at least 12 more.

China's other great fear is that ethnic nationalists in Tibet or Xinjiang, like democrats in Taiwan, might succeed in governing themselves. Thus does Mr. Putin, who razed the small province of Chechnya and who invaded Georgia in 2008 to teach an imperial lesson, became a hero to Chinese rulers.

To revere “iron hand and toughness” in a time where many Chinese reportedly have been deeply dissatisfied with their government seems to serve as admonition to political malcontents.

On the other hand, symbolisms like the above may also signify symptoms of veiled apprehensions by China’s political leaders.

Here’s why. From another Wall Street Journal Editorial,

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.

The first trend is typified by the willingness of about 100 people across the country to risk their freedom and put themselves forward as independent candidates in elections for local People's Congresses. Some are professionals, but most seem to be ordinary workers. These government bodies have traditionally rubber-stamped Party decisions, but their members theoretically have the power to supervise officials.

Most Chinese won't to be so bold unless they are mobilized from above, which is why new activism among the educated minority is so significant. 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.

Faith in the competence of the central government is also declining because of a lack of accountability. After the July crash of two trains in Wenzhou, the media exposed problems in the trophy high-speed rail program. Yet the Railways Ministry continues to receive massive amounts of new capital to finance rail lines that probably can't recoup the investment. New parents are obsessed with obtaining imported baby formula because they don't trust domestic brands.

State-owned industries increasingly prosper at the expense of private companies and households. In order to tackle high inflation the central bank tightened credit, but state companies continue to get bank loans while entrepreneurs are going bankrupt. Property developers are forced to sell inventory to stay afloat, so the price of real estate, one of the main stores of savings for the rich, is falling nationally, destroying wealth.

As I recently wrote,

China’s top-down political system and her attempt to bottom-up the economic system looks rife for a head-on collision course.

And it’s just a matter of time.

And that’s why the Chinese government will keep on inflating their economy to delay an inevitable economic bust that could spark a widespread revolt that risks toppling her government, which Chinese authorities seem to fear.

Nonetheless China’s political system would either have to reform to dovetail with the current economic conditions or revert back to an “iron-fisted” led closed economy which implies economic atavism.

No wonder many wealthy Chinese seem to be emigrating.

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