Discussion of China in the mainstream Western media is often carried on as if the country were a totalitarian monolith, with vast armies of workers in indistinguishable blue overalls assembling every morning to sing "The East is Red" before going off to earn the forex that secures the iron grip of PLA generals and sinister Mao-suited bureaucrats on world trade. Our elected leaders pitch more or less sophisticated stories of Yellow Peril; and for the pundit class, "China" is an explanation for more or less any outlandish claim one cares to make -- and it has built not a few careers, and not only at the NYT editorial page.
But there is likely nowhere on Earth where the path forwards is less clear, more up for grabs; likely nowhere where the political constellation is more uncertain. That the June Fourth Movement's (六四运动) demands for democratization were never satisfied -- that they were put down, violently, and against the principled opposition of a host of loyal and high-ranking CCP cadres, in Tiananmen Square almost twenty years ago, in an incident of which many young people in China are unaware -- did not mean that popular politics in China came to an end. What we have little considered is that the forms politics has taken since in that country might not be regressions -- stages on the pilgrim's path to the New Jerusalem of plebiscitary democracy and market capitalism -- but new forms with lessons for all of our futures.
Internal migration and urbanization
The China of "manufactured landscapes," the object of a newly refined appreciation for the sublimity of mass production, whence, in the popular imagination, come cheap plastic toys and carbon emissions, obscures another, less titillating reality: the half of the Chinese population (perhaps 700mn people) that lives on farms in the countryside.
China has a system of household registration (hukou 户口) and internal passports which leads to an overstated official number for rural residents; 100mn or more have moved from farms to the coastal cities since Deng Xiaoping's (邓小平) reforms in the early 80s eliminated the "iron rice bowl" (tiefanwan 铁饭碗). It is an old story (the more scholarly and nostalgic CCP cadres are surely familiar with Marx's concept of the "relative surplus population"): persistent underemployment in the agricultural sector driven by the relatively lower productivity of outdated farming techniques and competition from imported and industrially produced agricultural goods leads to a large, stagnant population that moves to cities to look for temporary or permanent work.
But registering internal migrants as rural residents gives the police forces the means to directly intervene in the domestic labor market. Under a system of internal passports, migrant workers whose status isn't regularized are an especially vulnerable (and exploitable) population: the threat of harassment can be used to keep wages down and keep workers from organizing (the state-run unions have an official monopoly on worker organization; neither domestic factory owners nor foreign investors nor the state look kindly on wildcat organization). Thus China's "black jails," illegal detention facilities in which recalcitrant migrant workers are held (1 2 3). And fear of police pressure helped drive migrant workers out of Beijing for the Olympics.
The problem of moving from a predominantly rural, peasant population, to a predominantly urban, worker population is not unique to China -- India is plagued by a rural problem on about the same scale -- and as the world urbanizes, the shadow of mass underemployment or unemployment has led some to warn of a "planet of slums." But it's important not to fall into an easy story in which it is the destiny of premodern farming populations to become city-dwelling industrial workers.
China's contemporary peasant population is the product of determined state policy: first, immediately after the revolution, a policy of redistribution which gave farming families title to land that previously belonged to landlords (the conversion of serfs and sharecroppers into small peasants); second, a series of experiments with collectivization and mechanization on ever-larger scales, including the consolidation of large state-run enterprises employing agricultural wage labor; and third, in the period since Deng, a gradual shift to a mixed economy in agricultural goods, with more and more reliance on prices and markets to organize production. But, as with all such gradual measures, the less-regulated and more enterprising (indeed not infrequently criminally so) have benefited disproportionately. In a cruel irony, the CCP once so concerned with discriminating between the various strata in the countryside (in order to mobilize the population to work for egalitarianism) has become the midwife of their rebirth. Meanwhile, the poorest farmers, left on the land with no prospects, often elderly and unskilled, are the most exposed to the viscissitudes of inflation and the most at risk from the environmental consequences of China's rapid industrialization.
Unemployment and discontent
Those whose luck, skill, or political connections have not been sufficient to assure prosperity -- and, whether still in the countryside or floating through the cities, they number in the tens or hundreds of millions -- have come to constitute a political tinderbox. The number and intensity of "mass incidents" (群体性事件) in China is at best difficult to ascertain, but runs at least into the tens of thousands yearly. But pictures and reports of incidents -- sparked by perceived wrongdoing on the part of government, by wrongful deaths, by rumors -- spread over the internet (here are some examples) and can balloon into larger problems for government. After the Dalai Lama's visit to France earlier this year, a spontaneous anti-Carrefour movement flamed up all over the country. China's minister of public security, Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱), recently warned in a CCP journal that police must avoid inflaming protests and riots.
Organized opposition to government in China has so far been successfully defused and deflected into the courts or managed on a purely local and contingent basis (sometimes with spectacular moves by the central government -- it isn't unheard of for corrupt local government officials to be executed when peasants' complaints are finally brought to central authority). But the Chinese economy has not yet faced a real shakedown. How a shock which left even a fraction of the internal migrant unemployed might affect working-class politics - and reveal the hidden fragilities of industries run by cronyism, corruption, and party privilege -- is an open question. Beijing fears nothing more than the possibility such a shock might be in the offing -- and lead to the formation of new alliances of the dispossessed.
On October 18th, three thousand laid-off migrant workers demonstrated outside the gates of a factory in Dongguan (东莞) in the Pearl River Delta, whose owners had fled to Hong Kong, leaving back wages unpaid: to defuse the situation, city government had to step in to pay back wages. It is not an isolated case. A Pearl River Delta chamber of commerce has estimated one in nine of the region's factories will close before the Chinese New Year, perhaps destroying 2.5mn jobs. So far the damage is mostly limited to export-oriented industries (toys, clothes) -- but domestic demand looks set to slow in line with exports, even as Chinese and foreign economists furiously debate the true dependence of the Chinese economy on exports.
Chinese GDP growth slowed to 9% YoY in Q3 -- which may seem like a high class problem, if growth above 8% were not crucial in order for the government to meet its job creation targets. In a very public (and politically significant) medium, Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) has warned of the danger posed by slowing domestic growth. Nouriel Roubini has said a "hard landing" in China may be in the offing, with growth at 6% or lower; Brad Setser makes many of the same points, in a slightly less apocalyptic vein. It seems ever more likely that China is entering a manufacturing recession.
Land tenure reform and transition
It is against this background that the Third Plenum of the Seventeenth Central Committee of the Chinese People's Congress met to discuss rural land reform. Reports on the reform decision are cryptic in any language -- the CCP continues to conduct its business in an elaborate, euphemistic jargon that must be carefully parsed by experts -- but it is clear that the essence of the plenum's decision was to reiterate the rights of farmers to lease or transfer rights to their land. Xinhua's coverage of the decision cited approved Party experts saying the goal of the reform was to increase the flow of capital to the countryside and to accelerate the transformation of farmers into urban residents.
Danwei -- keen observers of the Chinese media scene -- call them "decisions," with quotation marks. It's not clear, after all, that the rights given to farmers actually extend beyond those assured by the 2007 property rights law.
Danwei translate an interview with Yu Jianrong in the Southern Metropolis Weekly: he says the true weight of the reforms is symbolic. And not as a symbol of farmers' rights to sell their land: but of their right not to be bullied into transferring their rights. (Outright "sale" of land is not yet legal in the PRC.)
So a strong signal from central government that it has its eyes on the problems of the rural-to-urban transition and will step in to protect farmers -- often from local governments trying illegally to seize their lands. But we can be excused for our skepticism: will any quantity of good intentions provide jobs for ex-farmers once they move to the coastal cities, or keep them on the land if there is a major shock to the Chinese economy? And such a shock looks to be in the offing.
Amnesty International published a searing report on the consequences of the hukou system in 2007.
The International Food Policy Research Institute has published a comparative study of Indian and Chinese agricultural reforms.
Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, two Chinese journalists, published a report on the state of China's peasants, translated as Will The Boat Sink The Water? and banned in China. Check out this excellent interview with the authors and Yang Lian's review in New Left Review.
Leslie Chang's new book Factory Girls (here is an excerpt) gives an unvarnished look at the lives of migrant workers in manufacturing.
Elizabeth C. Economy's The River Runs Black is the authoritative English-language monograph on the environmental consequences of Chinese industrialization.
The inimitable Danwei rounds up its "model workers" -- the best China blogs in English and Chinese
ChinaSmack translates posts and comments from the Chinese Internet, giving English speakers a taste of its diversity and vibrancy -- for instance, Suqian city's party secretary blogging about migrant laborers.