Global Economics

In China, a Winter of Discontent


With millions stranded by snowstorms and infrastructure problems, antigovernment protests are likely. Will Beijing's apologies defuse the crisis?

It has been a remarkable scene. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the unelected leader of China's Communist government, has spent the past two days in damage-control mode as his government copes with a crisis triggered by the worst winter weather in decades. With severe storms slamming train service nationwide, millions of people attempting to return to their family homes for next week's Chinese New Year have been stranded for days in the freezing cold outside train stations in some of China's biggest cities.

So, bullhorn in hand, Wen on Jan. 29 appeared before thousands of stuck travelers in a train station in Hunan province to say he was sorry. "I apologize to you all," said Wen, who today went to the southern city of Guangzhou with a similar message. "You all want to go home and I completely understand how you feel," he said.

By showing his sensitive side, Wen is trying to contain the political damage from the crisis. Perhaps aware of the way President George W. Bush's lackluster response to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left him severely weakened, Wen wants to present himself as a can-do leader who is aware of the human impact of the disaster.

Half A Million Stranded At Guangzhou Station

Certainly Wen has to worry about the economic impact of the crisis. Already China has suffered over $3 billion in damages (BusinessWeek.com, 1/29/08) and economists estimate inflation is likely to soar as a result of food and energy shortages. "The chaos tells me how vulnerable the system is," says Han Dongfang, director of Hong Kong's China Labor Bulletin, the country's leading workers' rights group. China's infrastructure, which has so impressed the world, has not proved capable of moving people, fuel, and food supplies in seriously bad weather.

Wen has even more immediate worries than the economy, though. He has to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. Ever since the democracy protests of 1989, Beijing's leaders have made suppressing widespread social unrest a top priority. The government surely now must be worrying that the people most affected by the chaos—the millions of migrant workers left to fend for themselves in the freezing cold—might become violent.

Look at Guangzhou, where Wen went today. The city now has 500,000 people stranded at the train station, many of them migrant workers trying to get home. "Guangzhou is a real tinderbox," says David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "If the leaders don't do a decent job, they could have riots. Innocent people would get crushed and the government would lose enormous respect, support, and legitimacy."

Ever-Growing Number of Protests

Even before the latest crisis, growing numbers of Chinese have been taking to the streets to protest against the government. Ironically, as the Chinese economy has been growing at double-digit rates, ordinary Chinese—workers upset about low wages as well as middle class city residents angered by local government policies—are staging protests in greater numbers. In mid-January, for instance, thousands of Shanghai residents staged a demonstration against the government's plan to put a high-speed train through their neighborhood.

In 2006, according to the most recent statistics available, there were 94,000 large-scale protests—demonstrations involving more than 50 people—says Joseph Yu Shek Cheng, chairman of the political science department at the City University of Hong Kong. That's up from 86,000 in 2005. "People in China are gradually coming to know the right of protest to articulate their grievances," says Cheng, "to exert pressure on the authorities to take action."

The explosive growth of the Internet is also helping more Chinese learn about protests in other parts of the country. At the end of 2007 China's online population had grown to 210 million, up 73 million in just a year. Most protestors have been careful to ensure demonstrations stay focused on specific subjects and don't metamorphose into broader, anti-government action. "People have learned to keep narrowly on these issues," says Rebecca MacKinnon, assistant professor at the Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong. "They are finding if they keep it narrowly defined and focused, they are not going to jail."

Apologies May Not Be Enough

The government is likely worried that middle class Chinese, who should be the most satisfied with Beijing's pro-growth policies, are joining in the protests, adds City University's Cheng. "If middle class people are unhappy, that's a more dangerous signal in terms of social stability," he says.

That might be one reason Wen's government is so keen to avoid a further escalation in the weather crisis. Labor activist Han says there is one reason to be hopeful about Beijing's response. "They've learned something," he says. "Apologies don't necessarily make you look bad." If the trains don't start running soon, however, apologies may not be enough.

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in BusinessWeek's Hong Kong bureau .

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