By Shaun Randol
This year is shaping up to be a remarkable one for the Middle Kingdom. Protests and civil unrest are on the rise, and chatter surrounding the pro-democracy petition called “Charter 08” is making waves across the country. What began with 303 signatories, many of whom are the usual suspects (i.e. human rights lawyers, professors, etc.), and who promptly received complementary state surveillance for participating—has grown into a percolating movement bringing more and more “everyday” citizens into the fold.
At just over 8,100 signatures (and counting), Charter 08 appears to be the first promising movement in support of democratic reform since the tragic Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989. Released on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2008, Charter 08 calls for rewriting the Chinese constitution to allow for more democratic freedoms and an end to one-party rule. The document extols the value of freedom, announcing:
“Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.”
Charter 08 warns that if fundamental changes are not installed system-wide, violent and militant unrest cannot be stopped.
Since China opened its doors to the wider world, Beijing has maintained a shaky agreement with its citizens, exchanging economic freedom for political liberty: feel free to rise as high and as far as you want economically—but if you complain about a lack of political rights, consider the deal kaput.
Lately, however, Beijing has been unable to promise the stable economic environment that allows for unfettered economic freedom. Whereas recent U.S. jobless claims are reported in tens of thousands, in China they come in millions.
Chinese economic growth shrank to 6.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008, the slowest pace in seven years and far below the estimated 8 percent needed to sustain new entries into the employment ranks and stave off mass unrest. Some economists predict China’s growth rate will contract even further, down to somewhere between 3 percent and 5 percent, in 2009. According Beijing, exports plummeted 17.5 percent in January, compared to the same time last year (imports fell off a precipice, dropping by a whopping 43 percent over the same time).
The official urban unemployment rate stands at 4.2 percent, up from 4 percent last year (Beijing does not keep official statistics of the rural jobless). But currently, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates the nationwide unemployment rate to be around 9.5 percent—a number expected to rise through the year. Upwards of 15 million workers may join the ranks of the unemployed this year.
In just the past few months, we have witnessed a widespread reverse internal migration—poor urban workers are now returning, by the millions, back to the rural lands from whence they came.
In many cases, the farms’ millions of migrant workers left behind to move to the cities have been leased to other people or outright claimed for newly expanding urban projects. Those who return home may become lost, with no real labor prospects and destitute living conditions. The unemployed who choose to remain in Beijing, Guangdong, and parts elsewhere along the eastern coast will put additional stress on social safety nets (to the extent they exist), will drive up crime rates, and could quite possibly take to the streets to express their frustration.
A chemical factory scheduled for construction in the coastal city of Xiamen, for example, was moved to Zhangzhou after high-profile protests on environmental grounds swayed official positions. Yet, more often than not, political protests yield few results. Those who tried to organize to protest the government’s ineptitude in preventing faulty school construction in Sichuan from killing 10,000 students in last year’s earthquake, or tried to organize against the tainted milk scandal, were quickly shut down, jailed, or bought off.
Tens of thousands of protests—or in the official parlance, “mass incidents”—are reported annually in China, and that was in the good years (87,000 alone in 2005). Look for the number of protests and riots to dramatically increase across the country as the newly unemployed, disillusioned, and powerless turn to political demonstrations to voice their dissatisfaction.
But will Charter 08 inspire demonstrations for political rights? It remains to be seen. A friend of mine in rural China reports that the vast majority of people in his area know nothing about the manifesto. As such, signing it would make him “immediately radioactive” as one of only a few to sign it in his region. Human Rights in China posted a translation of Charter 08 and the names of its initial signatories, some of whom were detained, but later released. Many of them remain under surveillance. A Washington Post article highlighted the agonizing decision-making process “normal” Chinese go through before signing on.
No doubt the biggest proponents of Charter 08 will be in urban centers along the eastern coast, but that does not mean it will not spread in influence. Earlier this month, for instance, an open letter signed by more than 20 intellectuals called for a boycott of state television because of systematic bias in the news.
2009 is an auspicious year: it marks the ninetieth anniversary of the student-led protests that led to the establishment of the communist movement, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Traditional activists in all societies, a record number of students (6.1 million) will be graduating from universities this year and will enter an increasingly bleak economy. The educated and the agitated may look to capitalize on these headline dates.
2009 is also the Year of the Ox. The ox, accordingly, is supposed to bring prosperity through hard work. Who knows? Maybe with some hard work on the part of Charter 08 and other democratic outlets, a little spark of change might be coming China’s way this year too.
Shaun Randol is an associate fellow at the World Policy Institute and an independent research consultant.