By Kevin Meyer
Although the wave of companies running to China in the mistaken belief that direct labor is their largest cost has slowed, there are still some lemmings with blinders on. Fortunately there are more and more companies realizing the only valid reason to move overseas is to be closer to their customers and, yes, there are a multitude of potential customers in China.
Yesterday The Wall Street Journal published one of the best articles on China that I've seen in a while in terms of the potential future social upheavals. Something else to keep in mind when considering the supposed labor cost savings. The numerous comments on the article are almost if not more informative than the article itself, including several Chinese apologists with thought-provoking ideas such as "the Western idea of mistaking irresponsibility for freedom."
The premise of the article was whether a Middle East style uprising could happen in China, with the succinct answer being "perhaps" – but the discussion brought up many points that outsiders should consider.
Over the course of three short months, popular uprisings have toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, sparked a civil war in Libya and created unrest in other parts of the Middle East. They also have raised a question in many people's minds: Are all authoritarian regimes now threatened by this new democratic wave? In particular, is China, a rising superpower, vulnerable to these forces?
The Communist government in Beijing is clearly worried. It has limited news coverage of the recent uprisings and has clamped down on democratic activists and foreign reporters, acting pre-emptively against anonymous calls on the Internet for China to have its own "Jasmine Revolution."
So what are the chances for a similar uprising in China?
Even unpredictable things take place in a certain context, and the present-day situations of China and the Middle East are radically different. Most of the evidence suggests that China is pretty safe from the democratic wave sweeping other parts of the world—at least for now.
Perhaps, but lets dig into the reasons for uprisings.
Mr. Huntington noted that increasing levels of economic and social development often led to coups, revolutions and military takeovers. This could be explained, he argued, by a gap between the newly mobilized, educated and economically empowered people and their existing political system—that is, between their hopes for political participation and institutions that gave them little or no voice. Attacks against the existing political order, he noted, are seldom driven by the poorest of the poor in such a society; they tend to be led, instead, by rising middle classes who are frustrated by the lack of political and economic opportunity.
And indeed, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were led in the first instance by educated, tech-savvy middle-class young people, who expressed to anyone who would listen their frustrations with societies in which they were not allowed to express their views, hold leaders accountable for corruption and incompetence, or get a job without political connections.
Now comparing that to current day Chian.
It is certainly true that the dry tinder of social discontent is just as present in China as in the Middle East. This issue dogs all regimes that have neither the rule of law nor public accountability: The authorities routinely fail to respect the dignity of ordinary citizens and run roughshod over their rights. There is no culture in which this sort of behavior is not strongly resented.
This is a huge problem throughout China. A recent report from Jiao Tong University found that there were 72 "major" incidents of social unrest in China in 2010, up 20% over the previous year. Most outside observers would argue that this understates the real number of cases by perhaps a couple of orders of magnitude. Such incidents are hard to count because they often occur in rural areas where reporting is strictly controlled by the Chinese authorities.
Though corruption in China does not reach the predatory levels of certain African or Middle Eastern countries, it is nonetheless pervasive. People see and resent the privileged lives of the nation's elite and their children. The movie "Avatar" was a big hit in China in part because so many ordinary Chinese identified with the indigenous people it portrayed whose land was being stolen by a giant, faceless corporation.
There is, moreover, a huge and growing problem of inequality in China. The gains from China's remarkable growth have gone disproportionately to the country's coastal regions, leaving many rural areas far behind.
So inequality exists and some uprisings are occuring, but will they take root into a larger movement?
According to Mr. Huntington, however, revolutions are made not by the poor but by upwardly mobile middle-class people who find their aspirations stymied, and there are lots of them in China. Depending on how you define it, China's middle class may outnumber the whole population of the United States. Like the middle-class people of Tunisia and Egypt, those in China have no opportunities for political participation.
But China's middle class has a somewhat different perspective than those in the Middle East.
Like the middle-class people of Tunisia and Egypt, those in China have no opportunities for political participation. But unlike their Middle Eastern counterparts, they have benefited from a dramatically improving economy and a government that has focused like a laser beam on creating employment for exactly this group.
To the extent that we can gauge Chinese public opinion through surveys like Asia Barometer, a very large majority of Chinese feel that their lives have gotten better economically in recent years. A majority of Chinese also believe that democracy is the best form of government, but in a curious twist, they think that China is already democratic and profess to be satisfied with this state of affairs. This translates into a relatively low degree of support for any short-term transition to genuine liberal democracy.
Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the middle class in China may fear multiparty democracy in the short run, because it would unleash huge demands for redistribution precisely from those who have been left behind. Prosperous Chinese see the recent populist polarization of politics in Thailand as a warning of what democracy may bring.
On top of that the government is a bit more sophisticated.
The fact is that authoritarianism in China is of a far higher quality than in the Middle East. Though not formally accountable to its people through elections, the Chinese government keeps careful track of popular discontents and often responds through appeasement rather than repression. Beijing is forthright, for example, in acknowledging the country's growing income disparities and for the past few years has sought to mitigate the problem by shifting new investments to the poor interior of the country. When flagrant cases of corruption or abuse appear, like melamine-tainted baby formula or the shoddy school construction revealed by the Sichuan earthquake, the government holds local officials brutally accountable—sometimes by executing them.
The bottom line?
The bottom line is that China will not catch the Middle Eastern contagion anytime soon. But it could easily face problems down the road. China has not experienced a major recession or economic setback since it set out on its course of economic reform in 1978. If the country's current property bubble bursts and tens of millions of people are thrown out of work, the government's legitimacy, which rests on its management of the economy, would be seriously undermined.
Moreover, Mr. Huntington's scenario of rising but unfulfilled expectations among the middle class may still play out. Though there is a labor shortage among low-skill workers in China today, there is a glut of the college educated. Every year into the future, China will graduate more than seven million people from its universities, up from fewer than a million in 1998, and many of them are struggling to find work suitable to their self-perceived status. Several million unemployed college graduates are far more dangerous to a modernizing regime than hundreds of millions of poor peasants.
I tend to agree that China is different but will most likely have significant socioeconomic problems over the next couple decades. I would add one more factor that will play a powerful role: the rise of Chinese entrepreneurship, especially in a global world. The government has effectively tip-toed around this issue by allowing and even encouraging limited and sometimes overt capitalism, but at some point they will have to identify boundaries. At the same time a growing number of Chinese technology entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly powerful on a global scale. How will those boundaries affect entrepreneurial desires?
So when you consider moving to China for reasons other than being closer to a billion potential customers, are you factoring in what may happen to and within that society over the next few years? Where does a traditional P&L capture that potential cost?