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. 

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.

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

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.

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin quotes China’s main negotiator, Su Wei, as saying that China is willing to play if the richer countries of the West are also ready to play.

“We do not rule out the possibility of [a] legally binding” agreement, China’s lead climate negotiator, Su Wei, said in a news conference Saturday. “It is possible for us, but it depends on the negotiations.”

But some African and Latin American countries see the new European plan as a sleight of hand, an effort for richer countries to wiggle out of their Kyoto responsibilities, and to create a new plan that does less to handle the problem of global carbon emissions. This is not idle finger-pointing. Emerging countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil worry that richer countries are shirking the economic burden of cleaning up their industries onto poorer countries, write John Vidal and Fiona Harvey in today's Guardian. And with less and less stuff in Walmart labeled “Made in USA,” it will be the newer factories in China, India, Brazil, and so on who will have to pay enormous sums to clean up their act, according to the new rules. Is that fair? they ask.

And then there are the Tibetan protests

As for social unrest, Beijing faces having to deal with not only hundreds of thousands of angry workers and Western-recognized protesters, such as artist Ai Weiwei, but also the tiny fraction of its population who are Tibetan Buddhists. Many Tibetans still reject China’s control of what they view as an independent Tibet, and there appears to be a new phenomenon of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks setting themselves aflame in protest over the Chinese “occupation.” It's like Occupy Wall Street, but with a few subtle differences. 

Today’s People’s Daily includes a helpful article explaining that self-immolation runs counter to Buddhist philosophy. A religion that is opposed to killing, the Communist Party-owned newspaper argues, would never allow a believer to kill himself. (Note: the Chinese government is officially atheist, so presumably it is speaking primarily from a disinterested academic point of view.)

Some people with ulterior motives have claimed that self immolation is not against Buddhist doctrines, because it is free of selfish motives. 

They are willing to distort Buddhist doctrines for their own purpose and they extol the sin of self-immolation as "the greatest goodness" and "noble behavior". They even claim self-immolation is a religious activity offering tribute to the Buddha. 

Point taken. It probably doesn't help that self-immolation of an unemployed Tunisian fruit-seller was the event that kicked off the Tunisian rebellion that overthrew the government of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali

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