It’s time to push for a reformed China

Economic hard times have led to strikes and riots around the world. We have become accustomed to seeing photos of protesters with economic grievances throughout Europe and recently here at home with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Now, for the first time, similar protests are taking place in China. They are different than past demonstrations in that country about oppressive human rights conditions. They have nothing in common with the unrest in Lhasa over Tibetan independence or the protests in Xinjiang province over the mistreatment of the oppressed Uyghur minority.

The current demonstrations in China are a reaction to its worsening economic climate. The slowdown in Western economies has resulted in reduced exports from China. The country’s economy grew by 9.1 percent in the third quarter of this year, but that was down from 9.5 percent in the second. Last month, China’s manufacturing fell to its lowest level in three years.

In Guangdong Province, workers recently staged a strike at a plant that is a major manufacturer of computer keyboards for Apple and IBM, among others. They were protesting management’s demands that they work nightly overtime in addition to their day work. More than a thousand workers at an HP factory in Shanghai went on strike to protest a management ultimatum that they move to another city or resign without compensation. Several workers were injured and others arrested in conflicts between demonstrators and police. According to China Watch, there have been a number of similar strikes in the past few months.
The Arab Spring uprisings had already made Chinese authorities nervous, as evidenced by an increase in crackdowns and dissident roundups earlier this year. They were especially concerned when they saw how Egyptian and other Arab demonstrators used Internet social media to organize protests. In fact, this was probably their worst nightmare. The Chinese government has been very successful in managing the news on radio, TV and in newspapers. Managing the new media, especially the Internet, has been far more difficult.
It’s not that they haven’t tried. The government has been perfectly willing to alienate the rest of the world by censoring Google and blocking access to many Western news sites. Thousands of censors working for the government police websites and erase critical comments within minutes of their posting on various blogs and forums. Look for that effort to get even more intense.

Zhou Yongkang, China’s top security chief and a member of the nine-person ruling Politburo, recently warned provincial officials to brace for unrest if financial conditions continue to deteriorate. He said the country should focus on developing better “social management,” a euphemism for more effective Internet censorship and stepped-up efforts against dissidents and strikers.

As we watch what is happening in China, I think we need to remind ourselves that the United States still has the upper hand in the relationship between the two countries. We are by far the largest economy in the world with a GDP of close to $15 trillion, more than two-and-a half times larger than No. 2 China. U.S. per-capita GDP of $47,000 is 11 times larger. Contrary to popular belief, China owns less than 8 percent of our treasury bills, which are still the safest investment in the world.
The last thing China’s leaders want at this point is a decline in their exports caused by a new U.S. recession.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has said that the reason the Chinese people put up with the lack of freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion and more is that they see things getting better for them and their children. But if the Chinese economy begins to slide and those people lose hope in the future, the world’s most populous country could well fly apart as it did during the Cultural Revolution. China’s leaders know that.

China has still has not addressed its blatant currency manipulation, nor has it lived up to the promises it made when we gave it “Most Favored Nation” status and allowed it to join the World Trade Organization. It has hindered efforts to use economic sanctions in many areas, especially Syria, Iran and Darfur.
China is a growing power, but it is far more dependent on us than we are on them. We have not pushed hard enough to get them to address the economic, political and security issues they have been avoiding. It is time to call their bluff.

Originally published 11 Dec 2011 on