Wednesday, March 16, 2011

China's 'ant tribe' may sow seeds of unrest

Mar 16, 2011
By Ho Kwon Ping

IN THE aftermath of Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya and many other Arab world flashpoints, the question for Asia is obvious: Can it happen here?

But where might the 'here' be? Before placing bets, it would be useful to understand the confluence of socio-economic and political factors which led to the downfall of seemingly unshakable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.

The somewhat simplistic view is that the democratic impulse has been unleashed across the Arab world, resulting in a people's revolution. Some pundits have even called it a Twitter or Facebook Revolution, as if the widespread use of social media was the causative rather than the enabling factor.

Undoubtedly, disenfranchised young people around the world, connected through instantaneous and universal media of every kind, will be greatly encouraged to take direct action to overthrow authoritarian governments. All will certainly try. Some will succeed, but others will fail. What will make the difference?

The lesson from the Arab world is that four critical factors have to all be in alignment for a regime actually to collapse. They are what I would dub the 4E factors:

# Economic mismanagement of the highest calibre. Tunisia and Libya are not the poorest countries in the Arab world. They are, in fact, relatively wealthy. But poverty is not by itself a reason for revolution. It is blatant corruption, gross mismanagement of the economy and inexcusable disparity of wealth that turns despairing poverty into irrepressible rage.

# Educated, unemployed youth. Fed high expectations but jobless for years, these young people have the Internet skills and social intellect to communicate, organise and mobilise more rapidly and widely than the traditional opposition.

# Elite discontent - usually a disgruntled military class. Used to enormous power and privileges, but unhappy with the prospect of hereditary leadership rights supplanting the military's own internal succession processes, the military elites turn against their own leader. Without the tacit backing of the military - or at a minimum its refusal to support the regime - the people's uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia would have simply been crushed by loyalist security forces. This may in fact be Libya's eventual fate.

# Easy target - usually a dysfunctional gerontocrat. Mobs need an effigy to burn, a human target to insult and bring down. And the establishment needs, at the final moment, a symbolic sacrifice to ensure its institutional survival.

Of course, other factors such as deep-rooted ethnic or religious tensions - like the tribal differences in Libya or the Sunni-Shi'ite divide in Bahrain - can further aggravate an already explosive situation. But like astrological stars, these 4Es, when fully aligned, make the difference between regime change and controllable disturbances.

So where might these factors coalesce in Asia? Easy bets would be Myanmar and North Korea. There is no more obviously entrenched and oppressive regime, long overdue for a people's revolution, than the military junta in Naypyidaw. But whereas Myanmar lacks a single easily hated despot and the military is united as a class, the recent moves to create a Kim dynasty may have created deep, though still inchoate discontent in the North Korean military.

Elsewhere, the existence of several - but not all - of the 4E factors can result in increased popular unrest and even serious disturbances, but probably not total regime change. China does not appear to be a candidate for Egyptian-style turmoil, despite wishful thinking on the part of some idealistic human rights groups, excitable journalists or anti-China lobbyists.

While China does have serious structural weaknesses, absence of democracy and human rights, plus widespread abuse of power and corruption, these will not by themselves ignite a conflagration.

Lenin used to say that awakened desperation, not idealism, makes revolutionaries. Who then might be the awakened desperate in China?

Many people in China - poor farmers, migrant workers, the sick and infirm, among them - are all on the edge of desperation. The young are particularly desperate. Youth unemployment in China, and Asia in general, is 2.5 times the adult unemployment rate. But compared to Egypt and Tunisia, where youth unemployment is around seven to nine times higher than the national average, China's unemployed youth is a serious but not explosive social problem.

But there is a subset of unemployed youth who may well become the 'awakened desperate'. They are the jobless college graduates.

The Chinese Ministry of Human Resources estimates that 24 million urban residents are currently unemployed. Of these, some 14 million or 60 per cent are tertiary-educated. The reason for this disproportionately high figure is this: The number of Chinese university graduates has grown six-fold over the past decade, from one million in 1999 to some 6.5 million this year. By comparison, in Tunisia, where tertiary education is free, college enrolment tripled in the past decade - and that has already caused tremendous problems.

The stark reality is that supply has vastly exceeded demand for Chinese graduates. Most analysts concur that the total number of new urban jobs created this year will be around 10 million. Less than a quarter of this number, or perhaps around 2.5 million jobs, will be suitable for college graduates. Another 2.5 million college graduates will have no choice but to find menial, blue-collar factory or low-skilled service jobs. Roughly 1.5 million new graduates - a quarter of the total annual cohort of graduates - will simply not be able to find jobs, as the rest of the jobs will be taken up by non-tertiary school-leavers.

The problem will grow exponentially over the years. With a growth rate of 7 per cent, the number of urban jobs in China will increase by roughly one million a year. Yet with a 30 per cent growth rate in graduates, the supply of new graduates will grow by two million per year. So the gap will only grow wider each year, unless the government cuts back on university admissions, which is politically not easy to do.

The urban unemployment rate among college graduates in China was 6.3 per cent in 2000, doubled to 12 per cent in 2005, and is expected to be around 20 to 30 per cent now. In Tunisia, the unemployment rate of young graduates was close to 45 per cent; in Egypt, it was a frightening 70 per cent.

This has already given rise to a new sociological term in China: the 'ant tribe'. These are the thousands of young college graduates - mostly from rural areas - living like ants, many crammed into tiny rooms, daily walking the streets looking for jobs, and often settling for temporary, menial work. And because of the hukou, China's urban residence permits which enable only legal residents to enjoy social services, these jobless graduates are living on the edge of society, almost as disenfranchised as Arab youth.

This educated underclass will potentially be more angry and assertive than the floating mass of roughly 100 million to 150 million unskilled migrant workers, simply because their expectations are much higher. Connected by the Internet, they are a potent and potentially organisable force, watching and learning from events in the Arab world with growing interest.

The only way to even partially absorb the tsunami of young graduates hitting the job market is either through corporate job creation or by encouraging entre-preneurial self-employment. Both are high priorities in China's next five-year economic plan.

Quietly desperate, their frustrations have not yet awakened into rage. The question to which no one knows the answer is: When is the tipping point?

In the Arab world, the tipping point was when an educated, frustrated fruit seller set himself afire. The Chinese security apparatus' nightmare must be the spectre of an equally desperate, college-graduate street vendor immolating himself in Tiananmen Square.

Mao Zedong's famous saying, that a single spark can light a prairie fire, was literally true in Tunisia. The Chinese leadership in Zhongnanhai, the heavily guarded power centre next to the Forbidden City, must wonder where and how Mao may prove yet again to be prescient about his own country.

The writer is chairman of the board of trustees of Singapore Management University. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures from Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

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