Changing China


Chinese society is being transformed as its economy becomes more exposed to international competition and rationalisation of its highly-protected industrial structure.

Millions of workers are losing their jobs as state-owned industries close down, many of them without severance pay, pensions or health rights despite having paid insurance throughout their working lives. Protests have broken out, from people with very little to lose and courageous enough to confront security forces determined to prevent them spreading or being publicised in the Chinese media.

The problem has been acknowledged by China's Communist leaders, who have blamed much of it on official corruption. Details of the protests are scant, with international media and human rights groups prevented from having access to them. Those that have surfaced often tell a sorry tale of super-exploitation, with migrants from interior provinces having to work long hours in dangerous conditions for miserable pay, as has been publicised this week from Donguan and Guizhou in southern China. Many such factories produce goods for multinational corporations. In the north-eastern rust belt, state-owned factories lauded in past decades for their productivity and high output have been summarily closed, casting millions of people out of work in poor conditions. They have little to lose in their protests.

These problems are not going to go away, since Chinese industry has to adjust to membership of the World Trade Organisation in coming years. So far there is little sign that a national protest movement, on the lines of Solidarity in Poland during the late 1970s and early 1980s, is emerging. The security forces retain effective control over any organisation of dissent, such as they suspect the Falun Gong spiritual movement of being. Nevertheless, these are the largest protests to have occurred since the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square movement in 1989.

While the Communist Party retains its exclusive political control, it is no longer able to penetrate a more sophisticated and developed civil society using its old techniques. Such social changes have brought consumers, farmers, industrial associations and special interest groups into much greater prominence. Immense regional and social inequalities have emerged alongside them. Managing this transition politically towards reform and greater pluralism poses a huge challenge to the country's leadership.