The world is living through an economic crisis that will deepen in 2009. Some in the west respond in the manner of a drowning figure clutching at a reed: the Chinese government has a lot of money, they say, so let's appeal to them to save us from the crisis. In doing so, they fail to understand that the government in Beijing does not know how to save itself, let alone the rest of the world.
Wei Jingsheng is a Chinese human-rights and democracy advocate. After his "Democracy Wall" posters in Beijing in 1978, and his founding of the journal Exploration, he spent two periods in prison (1979-93, 1994-97). He was awarded the Olof Palme Peace Prize in 1994, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1996, and the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1996.He was deported from China in 1997 and has since lived in the United States. In 1998 he founded the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition
Also by Wei Jingsheng in openDemocracy:
"China's past, America's future?" (26 July 2004)
China has $2 trillion in foreign-currency reserves, but this appearance of wealth masks a huge disparity between the rich and the poor: 70% of the country's wealth is in the hands of 0.4% of its citizens, while 204 million Chinese - 16% people of the population - earned less than $1.25 a day (according to World Bank data from 2005). This extreme concentration of wealth is a serious economic but also political problem for the Chinese government.
First, it means that there are too few consumers to sustain a domestic market. The new "workshop of the world" is highly dependent on the fortunes of the rest of the global economy. The country's exports fell in December 2008 by 2.8%, the fastest rate in a decade. Many of the outlets for China's exports are collapsing, pulling domestic businesses down with them. The official unemployment rate in urban areas is 4%, though these are unreliable and certainly an underestimate; it may be more than 20% according to serious statisticians The economic crisis in China is far more severe than in the United States and Europe.
Second, the increasing unemployment and stagnant wages will trigger rising resentment against the super-rich and the country's political masters. Many workers will return to the cities after the Chinese new-year holiday around 26 January 2009 to find their factories closed and their jobs gone; many others will stay nearer home to find there is no work for them in the rural areas either. The government fears their response.
A ruling trap
In November 2008, the Beijing authorities followed their Washington counterparts by announcing a 4-trillion-yuan ($600 billion) public-spending package to lead the country out of its slump. This won't work in a China whose government is not elected by the people and whose policies are run in the interests of a bureaucratic-capitalist class. The beneficiaries of this package will not be everyday Chinese citizens but rather the owners of large business enterprises connected to the ruling elite, who are able to move their assets to safety outside China.
The Chinese government is squeezed. The more it favours the bureaucratic-capitalist class that is the source of much of its wealth and power, the more it will alienate the majority of the population. The only way out would be to help hard-pressed working and non-working Chinese with a programme in the fashion of the Franklin D Roosevelt's new deal in the 1930s.
If it does not take this path, it risks a revolt by the Chinese people leading to its own overthrow. There is already mounting evidence of popular discontent turning to violence in many parts of China: even by government figures the number of "sudden incidents" - the official euphemism for protests - rose from 80,000 in 2006 to a probable 100,000 in 2008. This tide of discontent is Chinese history repeating itself - the end of each dynasty was marked by a crescendo of violence.
In response, military suppression cannot work. The army's footsoldiers are the relatives of the often rural-origin workers who have lost their jobs; the families of the military officers will also suffer through the economic downturn. But the Chinese government cannot depend on the class of super-rich businessmen and bureaucrats either, for this privileged group will also act politically to defend its wealth and power.
China, after all, has seen many inner-elite political coups. They gathered pace in the 1970s: from the failure of Lin Biao's coup against Mao Zedong in 1971 to the overthrow of the "gang of four" in 1976 by Hua Guofeng which ended the cultural revolution. A change of faces at the top in response to the economic crisis could be a temporary palliative for China's deep structural problems. The first scapegoat may well be the prime minister, Wen Jiabao.
But a solution to the country's serious problems would have to go far deeper. In a democracy, the end of a government is a normal event. However, in a dictatorship it is a matter of life or death. Since the president, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao assumed their leading positions in 2003, the process of changing top officials has become more ruthless. The elite political struggles today involve more executions or long prison terms - usually under the guise of punishing corruption. The internal conflict between the various vested interests within the Communist Party is growing, with each faction's scapegoating of its rival becoming more acute.
People of all backgrounds from inside China are saying that, two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, the authoritarian regime is in trouble - and that in 2009 or 2010 the Chinese will reach the limit of their tolerance of the Communist Party. The intensity of popular anger far surpasses the resentment that directed against Mao's government in the 1970s or the corruption of the 1980s.
The people of modern China are different from their ancestors: they no longer expect a wise emperor and fair judges to rule over them. They know that only democracy will guarantee what they want: prosperity, security and fair treatment (see "The Fifth Modernisation", December 1978). The Chinese ruling class think this too - that's why they already send their children and their money to the west. The evidence can be seen from Los Angeles to Lake Geneva, where China's super-rich are using their huge cash reserves to buy real estate. The people stuck at home have no such choice. But their time is coming.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on China in 2008-09:
Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)