Disgruntled Chinese Workers Miss the 'Iron Rice Bowl'

Outgoing Chinese Premier Li Peng's recent corporate-like edict to the National People's Congress that the country must continue to privatize, downsize, and tighten its belt is not likely to play well with China's blue-collar workers, who already are bearing the brunt of the Communist Party's "new socialism with Chinese characteristics."

So far, the new brand of socialism has meant that a few elite - especially party members - are getting very rich at the expense of the masses. In pre-reform days, for example, managers of state enterprises received salaries only three or four times higher than the pay of the average worker. Now they can earn up to 300 times more, and that doesn't count wealth gained through the corruption that is rampant throughout the society.

In a sense, though, workers with jobs can count themselves lucky, because millions of others are jobless as state-owned industries downsize or close. As many as 15 million urban workers are now unemployed - some 7.5 percent of the urban work force - more than double the level a year ago. Another 15 million state workers are scheduled to be let go this year. In addition, some 120 million peasants are without work and are migrating to the cities to look for jobs.

THE dangerous and deep discontent was brought home to me by a Chinese friend whose husband and son were laid off by a state-owned firm and were unable to find other employment. As she leafed through a book of photos recounting the life of the late Mao Zedong, my friend's angry words surprised me as she compared the good old days under Mao to the present situation.

"They now try to say Mao was bad," she said, "but it's not true. Our lives were better then. We may not have had much, but we all suffered together. We at least had jobs and hope - now we have neither. We watch a few others get rich while we grow poorer."

This anger and longing for the old "iron rice bowl" of guaranteed jobs has already created overt dissension in China. Laid-off workers have mounted daring organized protests in a variety of cities. Worried Chinese leaders are making noises about instituting a $1 trillion New Deal-type program of large public work projects to create jobs. The Communist Party is also at least paying lip service to addressing the problem of whole-scale corruption, especially within its own ranks.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Chinese economy, threatened by the same forces of financial turmoil afflicting the rest of East Asia, will be able to put a lid on corruption and create enough jobs in time to quell the rising tide of worker unrest. Failure to do so could have cataclysmic results.

* Judy Pehrson is executive director of college relations at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. She spent 1996-97 teaching on a Fulbright Fellowship at Nanjing University.

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