In China, the Chinese government is obsessed with maintaining economic growth at a high level. This is because a large part of the Chinese government’s implicit mandate with the Chinese people is guaranteeing continuing growth, which leads to a better standard of living. If growth slows down, then the whole basis of government legitimacy is challenged. This is why leading economists such as Michael Pettis, a very astute observer of the Chinese economy, believe that the Chinese government will continue their outbound investments in the US, for example.
Now for many other political observers of China, there is the widespread belief that Internet censorship is a human rights and free speech issue only, and something which is unrelated to economics. For them, this is an argument about humanitarian values which should be shared across the world. In the past few days, there has been a new crackdown on Twitter clones and some outspoken blogs in China have been deleted, according to this story in the Washington Post.
But what if economic performance and Internet crackdowns are in fact related, because the government fears outspoken criticism if economic indicators are much lower than the goals they have committed to and seek?
If that is the case, then the internal economic numbers which the government is seeing are a better indicator of how the people feel and will behave in the short-term, and bad numbers would make the government want to crack down pre-emptively, heading off potential dissent before the news becomes widespread.
When you put this into the Chinese context of domestic politics, and see that the Chinese leadership will be handed over to a new president and premier in 2012, what is happening on the Internet makes perfect sense. The current leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are due for retirement then, and will hand over leadership to a new leadership team. With two years left in their term, it is safe to say that world markets look unstable, with another wall of debt about to hit the US and Europe in the next year, further dampening consumer spending in the west. How can they manage a smooth handover without things getting unstable?
In China, there are early signs that there is an excess of white collar workers in the cities, and a shortage of blue collar workers in the factories, which is why factory workers have the leverage to slow down work or even go on strike. The traditional Chinese view of education is that the more educated you are, the better, but this view is being challenged now, and this view will sharpen over the next decade. China’s urbanization will mean more white collar workers will be looking for work in the cities, and they will have a harder time finding jobs. At the same time, this under-employed workforce will be aging quickly. Already, there are signs that a new subclass, the “ant people” are emerging, living in separate gated communities. Will this turn into China’s version of Brazil’s notorious favelas? This is the exactly the kind of situation the Chinese government wants to avoid. The gap between the urban rich and poor will become more marked.
As growth slows, the greatest challenge to the government will become readjusting the hopes and dreams of the Chinese people to a new reality of more moderate growth. This is an unprecedented challenge.
Is this a formula for social instability? You bet!
And where will they vent? On the Internet.
How will they potentially organize by spreading inflammatory remarks? On the Internet.
Seemingly this is a China problem, but as the world economy slows down, it will become a problem for other governments too. Free speech is taken for granted in good times, but in hard times, when social stability is at stake, it becomes another story.