(June 14, 2011) Will do an early morning spot on CNBC Squawk Box tomorrow (Wed. 6/15/11) 8:40AM Eastern time (5:40AM hit for me here in California–argh!). Hope you can dial us in.
The topic will be the recent unrest in China that was the subject of the Wall Street Journal front page story today. There have been a series of public protests in recent weeks in Inner Mongolia, Lichuan, and Zengcheng, including bombs set off in Fuzhou and Tianjin a few days ago. Individually, the events are hard to connect: a Mongolian sheep herder accidentally killed by a Chinese truck driver; protests against corrupt local officials and property seizures; rough treatment of a migrant street vendor by police. Together, they reveal the stresses on a population struggling to deal with rapid change, corrupt local officials, rising food prices, and especially for migrant workers, uncertain paychecks.
As I have written many times before, every policy discussion with a Chinese leader focuses on a single goal–social, economic, political stability. Cynics say that is because the government wants to continue in power. Optimists say it is because the government knows they must keep China growing for a long time to catch up to the rest of the world’s living standards. China has grown by an incredible 10% per year since it was opened up 33 years ago. That growth has increased per capital GDP by a factor of 23 times from roughly $200 per year when Deng Xiao Ping opened China to market reforms in 1978 to roughly $4800 today ($8200 if measured adjusted for purchasing power.) But US per capital GDP is about ten times that high at roughly $50,000 per year. It will take decades for Chinese incomes to rise to US or European levels even if growth remains at 10%, which gets harder to do as incomes rise.
I don’t think the pressures than are making people angry are going to disappear overnight. That means we are going to see more protests, and more policy responses that are equal parts harsh security measures and accommodative economic policies designed to keep maintain high rates of steady economic growth. As an example, China’s huge stimulus program during the recent financial crisis was heavily weighted toward infrastructure and construction to keep the 100+ million migrant construction workers in China’s cities employed so they can continue to send money to their families in poor villages in western China.
The one think I can say about the protests in China is they are not ideological. They are often about very practical, local issues like food prices or a land grab by a city official. That means we should be careful not to make sweeping generalizations about them. In China, as in the US, the interesting stories are in the detail. These stories are heartbreaking. As you may know, I work with migrant workers’ children in China, building libraries and kitchens in grade schools and providing scholarships so kids can go to school. They don’t need life to be tougher than it already is.
Tune into our discussion on Squawk Box tomorrow. I will try to come up with something clever and insightful to say about all this by then but don’t recommend you hold your breath until I do.