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China’s slowing growth can’t keep lid on social unrest

The Chinese government is up to its old tricks again.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing is doing more than usual to block access to Google and other key Internet services in its heavy-handed efforts to keep its own citizens permanently in the dark about the time it deployed armed troops and tanks to crush large but peaceful pro-democracy protests.

Chinese users have been cut off from various Google services, including such non-search applications as its map and calendar products. And previously available Internet access to international versions based in Hong Kong, Australia and other countries "encrypted or not, are now blocked in China," according to a blog post by Greatfire.org, an independent monitor that tracks Chinese digital censorship.

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Not only does the Communist leadership bar all discussion of what is known in China as "the June 4th incident," but survivors and relatives are still closely monitored by security agents.

The blanket of fog has worked pretty well.

There hasn't been a surge of demand for information, even from people who have had access to Western news sources. Truth and reconciliation Chinese-style means never acknowledging that something happened. (One story peddled to unknowing students was that a convoy of tanks was running late for an important conference and had no choice but to run over the few protesters standing in its way.)

And there has been a distinct absence of anything resembling broad public agitation for democratic freedoms in the ensuing decades.

The reason lies in years of robust economic growth and the promise of even better times in the future, along with the comparative freedom to pursue personal goals at home or abroad – provided they don't challenge the political status quo. Posters everywhere tout the "China dream."

But that dream has the potential to turn into something of a nightmare for the technocrats charged with the complex task of constantly putting fresh lipstick on this particular pig. It's getting increasingly difficult for Beijing to maintain the high growth rates needed to ensure relative social peace, a task made considerably tougher by unfavourable demographics, rising labour discord and public anger over growing inequality and official corruption.

Let's start with the budding demographic crisis. The one-child policy adopted in 1980 has saddled the country with a shrinking population of young people of working age, at the same time as the numbers reaching retirement age are expanding rapidly. A generation of migrant workers from rural areas is now leaving the factory floor to a potentially uncomfortable future.

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The scarcity and worries about the future are bound to ratchet up pressures for higher wages and better benefits.

Indeed, this has already made an appearance in recent large-scale strikes. A major work stoppage in April at a huge Taiwanese-owned shoe-making complex in Dongguan, a manufacturing export centre near Hong Kong, was instigated by supervisors over the issue of social insurance and housing allowances. The workers and their immediate bosses charged that the company was not meeting its legally required payments to either program.

Departing from previous practice, riot police were sent in but not immediately deployed to crush the uprising. Instead, local officials allowed the strike to run 10 days and supported the workers' demands.

Add a pledge to foster growth based on the manufacture and domestic consumption of higher-level goods, as well as a conspicuous assault on certain official and corporate corruption, and it's plain that the Communist leadership is trying to become more flexible and cook up a new formula to dampen social unrest.

But as the economy inevitably slips into a lower gear – its sheer size alone makes such a shift inevitable – the demands for greater workplace rights (and eventually democracy) will grow, which can only benefit the economy in the long run. And no amount of Internet-jamming or propaganda-spinning will stand in the way.

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About the Author
Senior Economics Writer and Global Markets Columnist

Brian Milner is a senior economics writer and global markets columnist. In a long career at The Globe and Mail, he has covered diverse business beats, including international trade, the automotive industry, media, debt markets, banking and the business side of sports. More

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