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Good Reads: China faces unrest as economy slows

The rest of the world was hoping China's booming economy would pull everyone else out of economic slowdown, but now even China appears to be slowing down. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / December 5, 2011

A vendor waits for customers near dragon theme new year decorations on display ahead of the year of the dragon next year at a shop in Shanghai, China, Monday, Dec. 5.

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Ask a US State Department analyst what keeps her up at night, and the answer will likely be China.

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It’s probably not because China has an elite corps of female commandos. It’s probably not because China has now become the world’s largest emitter of carbon-based pollution. And it’s probably not because China is well on its way to becoming a global superpower. If anything, US foreign policy analysts probably wish China all the best at superpowerdom and hope they achieve that status sooner.

Why? Because if China’s robust economy continues to grow in this economic downturn as it has been, it is one of the best hopes other nations have of providing the basis for a global turnaround. If China continues to buy raw materials from Africa, oil from the Middle East, and debt from the US and Europe, then perhaps the global economy can crawl out of the current morass it is wallowing in.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the Chinese economy is beginning to slow down. Worse than that, there are signs that the ever-patient Chinese citizen is getting tired of producing the world’s low-priced gadgets and playthings for low wages and have taken to protesting. With so much of the world's economy now depending on China’s growth, a tumultuous Chinese slowdown could extend problems in countries that have already endured three or four years of sluggish growth.

In today’s Financial Times, Patti Waldmeir and Jamil Anderlini write that China appears to be preparing for social unrest. Quoting a senior Chinese politburo member on the need to find better ways of “social management,” Ms. Waldmeir and Mr. Anderlini note that China has witnessed a growing trend of unrest in the past few months, with workers both in Shanghai and Xian clashing with police last week over unrelated disputes.

Clashes with government

Chinese have clashed with their government before, most notably in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests. While generally thought of as a pro-democracy movement, the Tiananmen protests occurred at a time of double-digit inflation and slow growth, Waldmeir and Anderlini write.

With China already slowing down, it’s not hard to understand why they may be resisting pressure for them to take on the added costs of cleaning up the emissions from their factories, their autos and trucks, their electric-generation plants and so on. And yet, as talks continue in Durban, South Africa, at a climate change conference, in hopes of creating a new roadmap for reducing carbon emissions after the Kyoto agreement expires, China has started to show some flexibility in negotiations. Europe has put forward a “Durban roadmap,” which would urge all countries to reduce emissions, although at different speeds depending on the country’s level of development.

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