Paradox of a Global Power: Simmering Domestic Unrest in China

China has emerged as a behemothic power in international politics. It is the world’s fourth largest economy with the real GDP growth rate of 9.8 percent (2008). According to Global Security.org, China’s defense spending has increased by an average of 12.9 percent annually since 1989. Further, China has achieved remarkable feats in computing, space science, and medical researches.

Regardless of these achievements, China is grappling with major internal challenges, tackling which is a prerequisite for social cohesion, political stability, and the country’s overall sustained development.

First, the Chinese government is faced with a befuddling challenge stemming from the rising aspirations of its people, including laborers, farmers and the youth, for a better life, freedom and autonomy. The occurrence of worker suicides at a Foxconn factory and the recent spate in labor strikes in the country are manifestations of the growing social discontent with economic inequality and the increasing assertiveness of laborers vis-à-vis the company management and the government.

David Shambaugh, an authority on Chinese politics and foreign policy, aptly observes: “…during the past 30 years, China has dismantled its social welfare state – leaving hundreds of millions of citizens without any or adequate provision of healthcare, unemployment insurance, cost of education, and a variety of other social services.” (China Daily, 1 March 2010). Furthermore, as notes Sally Sargeson, an expert on rural China, the Chinese government’s land expropriation policy in the wake of urbanization has rendered around 40 million villagers landless over the past 15 years.

In fact, the strategic vision of the Chinese leadership is based on the flawed assessment that everything will be fine with the increasing infusion of capital investment and with China’s emergence as a major producing nation.

Second, the urban youth culture in China is being formed by the youth’s increasing exposure to the outside world or the western culture in the age of information technology. The “Net-Gen,” growing up using the Internet and social media, is significantly different from the old generation in respect of its stronger urge for freedom, autonomy, and self-expression. For example, the government ban on certain websites and the consequent suppression of Internet freedom has prompted the tech-savvy young and rich Chinese to circumvent such ban by accessing paid virtual private networks (VPNs). Also, the prevailing corruption in the government is the source of the youth disgruntlement. Impliedly, the Chinese government needs to strike a balance between the aspirations of the young populace for freedom and its own efforts toward maintaining political grip over the country.

Third, China is faced with ethnic separatist activities in Xinjiang province, resorted to by ethnic Uighurs. In July 2009, ethnic riots erupted in the province, forcing President Hu Jintao to cancel his visit to Italy, the host of the G-8 Summit. The Uighurs are disgruntled with the government for its discriminatory practices against them. For example, they have reported being displaced with the migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang in the wake of the launch of development projects in the province. Though it is but natural for the Chinese government to curb separatist tendencies, it is imprudent on its part to employ excessive force against the Uighurs as this will only serve to alienate them further.

Cumulatively speaking, the policy of repression against ethnic Uighurs, the neglect of laborers, farmers and rural people and the resulting increase in economic inequality, and the eroding trust of the youth in the government will in the long-term backfire against the communist government. On the one hand, the challenge of ethnic separatism and power struggle to the government seems fragile since China’s population is largely homogenous. On the other, the vast size of the population will make it excruciatingly difficult for the government to stem the tide of social unrest once the simmering social discontent explodes. The challenge before the government, therefore, is to formulate and implement socially inclusive and people-centric policies while pursuing economic liberalization and keeping its political dominance intact.
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Paradox of a Global Power: Simmering Domestic Unrest in China

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