Shoes, eggs, coal and restless Arab states

Posted by on Jun 12, 2011 in Perry's Blog | Comments Off on Shoes, eggs, coal and restless Arab states

Recent news stories coming out of China may give us some insights into the problems the Chinese government, at all levels, is having in a host of areas.
Why are these issues important? Since China will be the most important country we will have to deal with in the future, the more we can learn about its people, its government, its economy, its military, its culture and its problems, the better.
Here are a few stories.
FIRST, THE EGGS and shoes story. Recently a student at a prestigious Chinese university tossed eggs and his shoes at a speaker — the eggs missed but one of his shoes hit his target. Running barefoot across the campus, the brave student made his escape.
The speaker that day was a famous man in China. He had designed the government firewall that prevented Chinese citizens from having full access to the Internet. During his speech, he bragged about how wonderful it was that the government controlled the Internet so as to prevent dissidents from spreading anti-government “propaganda.” The student was so outraged at this arrogant bureaucrat, that he was willing to take great risks. If caught, he could have spent years in jail without a trial.
Coal is a separate issue but an important one. The price of coal has gone way up in China in recent months. The directors of the electric power companies have been prevented by the government from raising prices on electricity to help offset their increased costs for each ton of coal they purchase. Incidentally, 75 percent of electrical power in China is produced by coal — it is 45 percent in the United States.
THE POWER companies have taken bold action and have cut back on electric power production to pressure the government into allowing them to charge more for the electricity they produce. As a result of these cutbacks, many towns and cities now have electrical power only one day in three.
With the hot weather hitting much of China, and with so many homes now having air-conditioning units, the public anger is increasing daily. There are already 10,000 demonstrations against the government in China every year. Government officials at all levels are clearly worried.
In the past 20 years, 300 million Chinese have joined the middle class. They no longer live in grinding poverty. When people are so poor that they can barely make it from one day to the next, they don’t have the energy to organize protests against governing authorities.
As the standard of living of the Chinese people has improved, their desire for a better life, for personal freedom and for dignity has grown. There are many signs that there is a growing sense of outrage among those in the middle class.
COMPOUNDING THE PROBLEM for the Chinese government is the awareness throughout China of the “Arab spring.” Many Middle Eastern dictators and their cronies have lost their jobs — I expect Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi will fall from power very soon. The Chinese government is deeply fearful of the spillover effect that could lead to a “Chinese spring.” The No. 1 priority among the political and governmental leaders in China is maintaining power, and they are running scared.
Suppose you are a member of the government in China — let’s say a mayor of a town or some other local government official. You are receiving a crescendo of criticism about the shortage of electricity, the lack of access to health care, the deteriorating quality of the air and water, the lack of other basic government services and the rising inflation rate.
DEMONSTRATIONS ARE being held in your town on a regular basis, and the turnout at each is increasing. You have a hard time sleeping at night knowing that your cushy life as a government official may end soon. The central government in Beijing seems unable to help. Totalitarian rule based on the ideology of Marx, Lenin and Mao is under great stress. Stay tuned.
As the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya wind down over the next several months, Americans will begin to turn their attention from the Middle East to Asia, especially to China. We all can get ahead of the game by reading one magazine and three books. The Economist magazine’s coverage of China has been and will continue to be outstanding. Also, the following books are well worthwhile.
On China, by Henry Kissinger, has just been published. It provides a historical and strategic analysis. Country Driving, by Peter Hessler, examines ordinary Chinese. A third book does not provide a balanced analysis, but it makes for fascinating reading — Fault Lines on the Face of China: 50 Reasons Why China May Never Be Great , by Karl Lacroix, David Marriott, John Ryan and Rebecca Huang.

This column appeared in the Augusta Chronicle on June 12, 2011

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